“Sylvia” by A.R. Gurney

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Sarah Jessica Parker originated the role of “Sylvia” on Broadway1995

by Eileen Warburton

Has your pet changed your life? Have you ever wondered what she’s thinking when she stares up at you and tilts her head? Could she have the secret to understanding the world at large and your place in it? Or is she just more interested in how your shoe tastes? In Sylvia, the world of a middle-aged New York couple is turned topsy-turvy when the husband brings home an exceptionally engaging canine running loose in Central Park.

Sylvia is a love story, of course, or at least a story about a man’s relationship with one of those magical animals people in stories so often meet just when they’re at a troubling crossroads in life, an animal that is a guide to finding the best in ourselves. (Think of fairytales like “Puss in Boats” or “The Frog Prince,” or of plays like Harvey or even The Goat.) As every pet owner knows well, we humans need a connection with the non-human to figure out our way. We are the better for co-habitating with a creature that can wiggle its way through all our regular emotional defenses. The delightful cleverness of Gurney’s Sylvia, of course, is that our propensity to project human characteristics and motives onto our non-human companions is dramatized by having the adopted dog played by a sexy, adoring young woman. This love story has all the earmarks of a mid-life affair, except that the love-struck straying husband is still happily married to his wife.

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Annaleigh Ashford played Sylvia in the 2015 revival with Matthew Broderick as Greg

Greg and Kate find themselves in one of those “passages” situations in life. They are empty-nesters who have intrepidly left the suburbs to begin the next phase of their lives. For Kate, it’s a happy transition – a shiny new city apartment easily kept tidy and minimalist, a loved and long-awaited new job where she gains success and recognition, an active social life in the city. She’s paid her dues as a mom and supportive spouse and now she wants the life she’s dreamed of. For Greg, however, the transition is awkward and feels barren. His job has become increasingly unfulfilling, he fights with his boss, he misses his kids, he questions his values, he is disconnected from the new life Kate loves so. The answer, as he sees it – is the mysterious arrival of the magical animal when a mangy, flea-bitten, needy stray dog trailing a leash simply jumps into his lap and licks his face. Sylvia needs Greg. Greg needs Sylvia.

At first, having Sylvia in his life is simply about having a purpose again. Greg gets to love someone who adores him. There’s routine, care-giving, and a reason to get up in the morning. Soon, however, life with Sylvia reconnects Greg with parts of himself that have atrophied as he spends reflective hours walking the city, visiting the outdoors in parks and countryside, and having ordinary friendly conversations with all sorts of new people. He begins once more to care for himself and examine what kind of life he actually wants to live. Sylvia’s unconditional love makes him brave enough to make changes. Yet, while Greg’s affaire de coeur with Sylvia is his blessing, Kate finds this smelly, shaggy, sly mutt-mistress a decided curse. Sylvia is messy, dirty, disobedient, attention-demanding, and disruptive – in short, a dog. She undermines all Kate’s carefully developed plans for her new life. Kate responds first with dismay, moves to resentment, and finally arrives at pure, marriage-threatening hatred of the new female in her husband’s life. Swinging between potential murder and potential reconciliation, Sylvia is the exploration of a comic, yet strangely realistic, ménage a trois.

A modern romantic comedy about a marriage and a dog. “Dramatic literature is stuffed with memorable love scenes, but none is as immediately delicious and dizzy as the one that begins the redeeming affair in A.R. Gurney’s new comedy, SYLVIA…” —NY Times. “I can only call it one of the most involving, beautiful, funny, touching and profound plays I have ever seen…” —NY Daily News. “Gurney’s mad comedy is the most endearing good time to trot down the pike in many a moon. Howlingly funny…” —BackStage.

 

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