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Review: Civic’s ‘Sylvia’ a funny, insightful dog’s tale

We see the best of ourselves in our dogs because they see the best in us: They don’t judge, they don’t second-guess, they love unconditionally. The fact they’re considered man’s best friend suggests the innate selfishness of man, because we need a creature who is always a loyal and affectionate companion even when we don’t really deserve one.

In “Sylvia,” a talky, sometimes ribald domestic comedy now playing at Spokane Civic Theatre, a dog bounds unexpectedly into the lives of a married couple, bewitching one and alienating the other. Written by A.R. Gurney (“Love Letters,” “The Dining Room”), the play examines how the blind adulation of a canine unearths long-buried resentments in a 22-year marriage. It’s perceptive about how we relate to one another, but it’s also funny.

Most of the laughs come from Sylvia herself, a stray mixed-breed who Gurney has written to be portrayed by a human (Sarah Jessica Parker originated the role when the play premiered in 1995). But this isn’t the case of an actor simply wearing a dog costume and walking around on all fours: Sylvia, played here by Jennie Oliver, can verbally interact with everyone else and is costumed in regular clothes – for instance, she’s dressed in a fancy cashmere sweater after a trip to the groomer – with the exception of a collar. It’s a stylistic decision that might seem like a gimmick at first, but it works, especially as the show goes on to explore the jealousies overwhelming the couple that adopt Sylvia.

They’re named Greg (Stephen Holcomb) and Kate (Allison Corn), empty-nesters who have recently moved from the suburbs to an apartment in Manhattan. Kate is an uptight intellectual, teaching Shakespeare to inner-city youth; Greg is in the throes of a midlife crisis, and he feels suffocated by the restraints of his office job. During an afternoon walk through the park one day, Greg encounters Sylvia, and it’s love at first sight for both of them. Kate, however, isn’t as immediately smitten by Sylvia: In her mind, her upper-middle class serenity has been shattered by the sudden appearance of a mongrel that leaves hair on the furniture and puddles on the floor.

Sylvia’s presence consumes both of them. She attracts all of Greg’s focus and attention, while Kate grows more and more indignant, calling the dog “Saliva” out of contempt. This is where the decision to present Sylvia as a young, attractive woman becomes a crafty one: “Sylvia” is really the story of a love triangle, in which a frustrated middle-aged man considers trading in his wife for a newer, younger model that just happens to be a dog. At one point, a marriage counselor (Jone Campbell Bryan, who plays two other roles in the show) keenly observes that Greg’s obsession with Sylvia is merely an extension of his insecurities: “If Sylvia didn’t exist, you’d have to invent her,” she says.

Perhaps this makes “Sylvia” sound heavier and more meditative than it is, because it’s first and foremost a comedy. The concept of a household disrupted by an unwanted dog has been done many times before, but Gurney ties the concept to a compelling human relationship. It’s also got the trappings of a typical culture-class comedy: There’s something inherently funny about Greg and Kate’s tight-laced existence being rudely interrupted by Sylvia’s uncouth behavior, and the play’s most hilarious moments involve Sylvia unleashing a string of four-letter words on mischievous cats and other dogs. Director Melody Deatherage has done a good job of keeping the show’s pace from dragging, and, like an overactive dog, it’s often breathless in its energy.

As Sylvia, Oliver gives the trickiest and most consistently engaging performance of the small cast, but she makes it seem effortless. It’s a demanding, complex role, because it requires her to exhibit canine behavior without ever transforming into a dog: The disconnect between Sylvia’s appearance and the way she acts is important to the impact of the character. And she also has to be instinctively dutiful no matter what, something that’s tidily summed up in something Sylvia tells Greg near the end of the play: “Even when you act like a complete (expletive), I still love you unconditionally.”

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