While other theaters put their Valentine-season stock in traditional romantic comedies, Theatre Downtown is reaping the rewards of a lesson it learned last year: Not even a human pairing that's written in the stars can compete with the heart-melting love of a man for his dog.
That's the kibble-kernel of wisdom behind the theater's reprise of A.R. Gurney's Sylvia, a big, sloppy kiss of a character piece in which the arrival of a friendly stray threatens to outdo the relationship between a businessman and his wife. Director Kevin Bee and his four-person cast are all back from Theatre Downtown's 2004 production. It's a "remounting," see the perfectly punning designation for a show that humps your leg with all the comedic gusto and poignancy it can muster.
The encore is richly deserved from the minute Jennifer Gannon bounds on stage as Sylvia, a frisky mutt who's been rescued from the ranks of the abandoned by the doting Greg (David Bass). Sylvia's face is a blazing sun of expectant beaming as she awaits her idolized new master's every attention. He's only too ready to oblige. Greg is running from the unwanted changes middle age can wreak (a forced transition into currencies trading is a particular burr in his saddle); having Sylvia to cater to brings out the eternal kid in him.
Yet neither man nor dog has bargained for the negative influence of wife Kate (Lori McCaskill), a junior-high English teacher with a head full of Shakespeare quotes and an innate aversion to seeing some shaggy interloper tread all over the furniture. By intermission of this fast-moving two-acter, Kate has made it her mission to get Sylvia out of the house for good. And we've made it our mission to hate her.
Playwright Gurney underscores this rivalry by humanizing Sylvia in several key ways. She can both understand and talk to the people in her life, and the actress impersonating her is required to work without an elaborate costume or significant props. Gannon rises to the challenge, nailing the particulars of doggie behavior without ever descending to rote mimicry. When Sylvia is excited, she runs in place, anxious to get on with whatever shared activity the almighty Greg has in mind. The sight of a cat unleashes a torrent of obscenities, while milder irritants provoke barking that's expressed as a rapidly accelerating series of accusatory phonemes. ("Hey. Hey. HeyheyheyheyheyHEY!") It's almost a shame Gannon looks so much like Sarah Jessica Parker, who originated the role in New York; her performance is too good to dwell in anyone else's shadow.
Bass makes the utmost of his straight man's job, responding to Sylvia's antics with an innocent delight that's completely endearing. Aaron Babcock inhabits a trifecta of winning supporting roles, particularly that of a vaguely creepy neighborhood dog owner with a shelf-full of advice for new "daddy" Greg.
If there's a weakness to the show, it's in the casting of McCaskill, whose work is simply too unpolished to make Kate the black hole of dog hatred she needs to be. That's less of a consideration in the second act, when Gurney eases off the comedic accelerator a tad to let the entire cast get swept up in the deeper realities of Sylvia's (i.e., Everydog's) existence. Though Gurney's script is rich with subtle subthemes including the suggestion that all Americans are, like Sylvia, mutts it remains at heart the story of one lucky fellow whose experience with man's best friend is nigh on universal. While you're watching, your mind will be flooded with memories of every dog you've ever owned. And if that's not love, well, nothing is.