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‘Sylvia’ a real treat and doggone funny

If you love good dogs and good acting, book yourself a ticket to the Spokane Civic Theatre’s production of “Sylvia” right away.

This A.R. Gurney comedy, featuring the young and talented Beth Carey as a stray named Sylvia – and yes, we do a mean a stray dog – will entertain you more thoroughly than a basketful of puppies.

Assuming, of course, that you feel about dogs the way Greg does, and not the way his wife, Kate, does. Greg (played by Bill Forant) loves everything about the adorable Sylvia. He even finds her bark (“Hey! Hey! Hey!”) cute. Kate (played by Anne Lillian Mitchell) is not won over – not at all. To her, Sylvia is a smelly, demanding creature who wets on her carpets and chews up her favorite shoe. And who also gets more affection from Greg.

And thus we have, essentially, the classic love triangle plot. Greg loves both Kate and Sylvia. Yet he can’t keep them both.

Under the nimble and smart direction of Brooke Kiener, the emphasis is always on the comedy. The first 20 minutes of this play – as Sylvia cavorts around her new Manhattan apartment – were more fun than almost anything I’ve seen this season.

Yet this production gracefully brings out the more serious points behind Gurney’s story, which can be boiled down to these: The dog-human bond is deep and powerful. Dogs can lift our spirits in profound ways.

Not to mention that dogs can give worry-wart humans some perspective on how to get the most enthusiastic enjoyment out of life.

It’s exactly that enthusiastic enjoyment that comes through most vividly in Carey’s performance. When she first comes bounding on stage, she doesn’t look like a dog (no, there’s no furry costume) nor does she sound like a dog. She speaks perfectly understandable English, in the manner of, say, a particularly bubbly 8-year-old.

“Out? Did I hear ‘out’? I love that word ‘out,’ ” she says.

Yet she acts like, a dog, with every movement, every gesture. She stalks around the room, sniffing furniture, looking under couches. She rolls on the floor. She stares up adoringly at her new owner, Greg, until she is finally moved to say, “I think you’re God.”

She is also capable of exploding with the most foul-mouthed tirade imaginable against her filthy, worthless, disgusting enemies: cats.

Carey modeled her performance after her own dog, Charlie, and I think Charlie would be pleased. I kept my eyes on Carey even when she didn’t have a line, and she never broke character. She was Sylvia, and yes, she was adorable.

Forant also hit the right tone with Greg. Greg is a bit of a sad sack – he hates his job, he’s not happy in general – but Forant made us empathize with him. He also made us understand that, yes, a dog really can make a difference in someone’s life.

Mitchell plays the long-suffering wife role – not the most endearing role in the play – yet she reminded me of Cheryl Hines in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” an expert at that particular game. One off note: She looks way too young to have children in college.

The play veers off track only in brief scenes with auxiliary characters – one a stereotypical WASP matron and the other an unusual kind of therapist. Jerry Sciarrio plays both of these characters, as well as a third named Tom, yet the problems have nothing to do with him. These are simply weakly written scenes in which Gurney veers into sitcom stereotypes. I did wonder, however, why an ambiguously gendered Manhattan therapist would speak in an accent straight out of “Greater Tuna.”

Yet the only character who really matters is Sylvia. She’s the most well-defined, endearing and enjoyable character I’ve seen all season – of any species.

“Sylvia” continues at Spokane Civic Theatre’s Firth Chew Studio Theatre through Feb. 21. Call (509) 325-2507 for tickets.