‘Sylvia’ at Raue: A puppy love triangle

“The relationship between a man and his dog is sacred.”

That statement, made by a longtime dog owner in the A.R. Gurney play “Sylvia,” is at the core of a very funny comedy now playing through May 20 at the Raue Center for the Arts. If you’re a dog owner, or someone who is exasperated by one, Williams Street Repertory’s latest “pet” project is well worth seeing.

“Sylvia” is the story of a “mutt” of that name who locks eyes one afternoon with a middle-aged man, Greg, in New York’s Central Park. Wearing a tag with her name, but no additional ID, Sylvia’s enthusiasm and friendliness win Greg over.

As the play opens, Sylvia is exploring Greg’s beautiful apartment mere moments before Kate, Greg’s wife, arrives home. Kate is not enamored of Sylvia, arguing that a dog won’t fit in with their empty-nester work schedules and generally active lifestyle. “I’m exercising a veto,” she says, “N-period, O-period.” But that veto is arriving a bit too late; Greg and Sylvia have bonded. Will the love between a married couple survive a dog’s uncomplicated love for her master?

Oh, did I mention that in the play, Sylvia is played by a talking actress? Yes, one of the major pleasures of watching this comedy is the lively, fun performance of Miriam Naponelli in the title role. Suspend your disbelief for a couple hours, and whether she’s on two legs or all fours, her antics – e.g., her ultimately futile attempts to get Greg to take her for a much-needed walk outside and her intense attraction to another dog in the park, “Bowser” – will win you over.

When Sylvia hears someone at the door, the excited/scared yapping (“Hey! Hey! Hey!”) is reminiscent of the meows I hear at the end of the day when I return home to our vocal calico cat. Yes, even cat owners will be able to relate to Sylvia.

Joel Bennett, as Greg, is “torn between two (emotional) lovers” – Sylvia and Kate. And even though Greg is forewarned early on to “Always remember your dog is just a dog,” it’s a warning he disregards as he spends more and more time away from his job and away from his wife, and more time with Sylvia, getting the dog groomed, dressing her in a variety of outfits, encouraging her to play with other dogs at the park, and the like. When Joel and Kate meet with a marriage counselor, Leslie, in the second act, Greg’s infatuation with Sylvia has reached its peak to the point where Leslie gives some radical advice to Kate.

Kate, played by WSR Ensemble member Alicia Regan, is the apparent villain here, but the audience easily can see how Greg has gone overboard with his “puppy love” and how it could threaten the security of Kate’s relationships with Greg and others.

In one scene, she must lie to Greg’s boss on the phone; in another, she’s trying to have a pleasant visit with a girlfriend only to have the subject of Sylvia, and then the actual presence of the dog, cause a major disruption.

By the end of the show, we’re not sure which part of this unusual love triangle should survive, but we’ve been majorly entertained along the way.

In addition to the excellent work of Naponelli, Bennett and Regan, I was greatly impressed by the set design by production manager/scenic designer Carolyn Voss; the overall direction of the show by Joe Lehman, who balances laughter with love; and the flexibility of having two experienced actors – Caron Buinis and Andy Brown – alternating performances as the three other characters in the play: a man at Central Park, a woman visiting the apartment and an undefined-gender marriage counselor.

On opening night, a sound system glitch kept Regan’s initial dialogue from being easily heard. It became less of a problem as the evening went on, but there still were times in the second act that her voice wasn’t as easily heard as the voices of her fellow actors.

And it’s important to point out that the play is advertised as being rated PG-13 due to “language and suggestive sexual content.” But the curse words are infrequently used, and the “sexual content” focuses on intense attraction between dogs. Neither of these issues should be a stumbling block for most audiences.

In short, “Sylvia” is a “tail” worth chasing – or at “leash” chasing down tickets for.

• Paul Lockwood is a past president of TownSquare Players and an occasional community theater actor, appearing in over 30 plays, musicals, and revues since he and his wife moved to Woodstock in 2001. He’s also performed in Get LIT(erary) and Williams St. Repertory LAB Series dramatic readings and will appear later this summer in a Radio Parody Playhouse program on Huntley Community Radio.

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