Say Hello to Cousin Id

Man-dog love gets the treatment in A.R. Gurney's Sylvia

Sylvia, A.R. Gurney's amusing play receiving its Orange County premiere at the Laguna Playhouse, features one of the most bizarre love interests ever seen in an otherwise conventional play: a middle-aged man and a stray dog, played by a woman. Even with this peculiar relationship, Sylvia is vintage Gurney, America's most popular commercial playwright: it's easy to comprehend, it's easy to swallow, and it contains a few intellectual insights strategically placed to make the overall guilty pleasure even easier to enjoy. While not a great or even very good play, it's a quite watchable one.

It's also quite intriguing, but probably not for reasons intended by the playwright. Listen carefully, and you'll hear faint, and not-so-faint, whispers of male sexual domination throughout Sylvia, a play in which Man is Master and Woman is Obedient Servant.

The woman in this case is a dog, Sylvia, played by a quite attractive woman named Carolyn Barnes. And this dog/woman is led around for much of this two-hour play on a leash; she gets humped in a park; men admire her cute butt as she sashays down the street. She is wholly obedient to her male master. In short, she's a five-star kind of gal. Actually, she's a few grades better: she can't ask you to take out the trash, and she never, ever says no. If you can put up with her pissing on the couch from time to time, it's a great match.

For the record: I interviewed Gurney five years ago. He's undoubtedly one of the nicest people I've interviewed. And his place as one of the commercial theater's most popular playwrights-a guy who writes such audience-friendly plays that when he uses swear words, people actually laugh-makes him just about the last person who could be accused of writing a consciously chauvinistic play. The man built his reputation on well-made, mannered comedies that take place in the comfortable studies and living rooms of WASP families in the northeastern United States. At his best, Gurney captures intriguing glimpses of a fading cultural and social elite in contemporary America. At his worst, his plays are as white as George Bush's ass-and just as exciting to think about or watch.

So Al Goldstein he ain't. But, while I'm the first to admit that I may be reading way too much into what appears to be a wholesome play, I'd also be lying if I didn't think at moments that maybe, just maybe, Gurney is getting away with way more than most mainstream playwrights could.

And that's a train of thought far more interesting to consider than the corny plot and facile characters of this play. Gurney wrote Sylvia in 1996. In it, we find Greg (Don Took), a middle-aged commodities trader who is unhappy with his career and restless in his personal life. The disillusioned Greg gets a shot of enthusiasm when he finds a stray dog scampering around Central Park. Apparently unaware that Central Park is where dog owners bring their beloved pets to frolic and that the presence of a name tag probably means Sylvia already has a home and people who love her, Greg claims her. One problem: his wife, Kate (Lisa Robinson), doesn't want a dog. She's enjoying the freedom of her now empty nest by plunging into her career teaching Shakespeare to inner-city junior high school students.

Ah, WASP-ish nobility. It soon becomes evident that Greg doesn't just like Sylvia; he's enraptured by her. They cuddle on the couch, coo into each other's ears, lick the same ice cream cone. It's not that Greg is sexually aroused by his poodle/lab mix-that would be a play to see. It's that she represents the abandonment of self to instinct, an antidote to Greg's sterile, hollow life.

So he begins ditching work to take Sylvia for walks, and he spends more time teaching her tricks than he does turning tricks in bed with his wife. As his passion for Sylvia grows, his interest in preserving his marriage wanes. Eventually, as all heroes must, he has to choose: his wife or his bitch.

As a piece of entertainment, this Andrew Barnicle-directed production works quite well. Barnes contributes a buoyant, vibrantly physical performance, with plenty of canine scratches, cocks of the head and pricks of ear. Most impressive, she captures the innocence and friendliness of the canine and the coy, seductive qualities of the woman. The rest of the performances are equally solid, with South Coast Repertory veteran Took smoothly anchoring the show and Michael Sandels having a hell of a good time playing three delightfully over-the-top characters.

As a cultural signifier, however, Sylvia is a bit more problematic. Much is made in this play of the need for humans to get in touch with nature, to tap the id. But how is this natural order portrayed onstage? By showing a woman as a dog who lives for the approval of her male master; a woman who is sexually assaulted (offstage by a dog named Bowser, and she really likes it); a woman who is scolded, leashed, in heat, and nearly sold to another family like something out of Roots. Is it really all light-hearted fun and games, middle-of-the-road metaphor? Or does it tap into the age-old fantasy of male domination and sexual virility played out onstage within the context of a mostly well-made play?

Of course, most rational, stable people who have seen Sylvia no doubt think I'm joking or just a little disturbed. Really, how could anyone think that such a warm-hearted play could send any other signal but the syrupy platitudes mouthed by its characters? And even if it's true that man is master of this play, Sylvia is her own dog/woman-and she teaches her male master how to live life. And what about the other woman in the play, Kate, the smart, ambitious teacher dedicating her life to helping the urban poor? She is no man's property.

Good points all. And how does Greg feel about his smart, ambitious wife? He all but dumps her. For a dog.

I don't think Gurney set out to write a play that touches, however remotely, on the unstable forces surging beneath the appearances of civility. But I do think that's what the play finally accomplishes. That makes it neither offensive nor dangerous. No matter how much it's analyzed, Sylvia is a silly little play that Middle America will eat up for years; this will probably turn out to be Gurney's most beloved work. Oh, the irony: in a career chronicling well-bred, well-mannered and well-educated families, Gurney may have scored his greatest triumph by tapping into the primitive and vulgar engine that drives even the bourgeoisie.

Sylvia at the Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-ARTS. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through Dec. 6. $31-$38.

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