Theater Preview

by Tom Fitt
Published January 15, 2009

The title role of the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities’ (CLOSBC) play opening tomorrow at the Hermosa Playhouse (preview tonight) is a bitch.
“Sylvia,” by A.R. Gurney, is about a stray dog looking for what all pooches want – and humans, too, for that matter. She wants to be loved, have a warm house in which to snooze, the occasional walk and ball-throw in the park, a bowl of kibble and a pat on the head when she’s good. Nothing much, really. She desires the same attention as those cute puppies on Michael Vick’s ranch. Actually, the long-toothed canines might come in handy if CLOSBC, or any other local theater group, decides to release “Cats” yet again. Turn ‘em loose. Chase the kitties up to Ventura County where they love warbling felines.
The four roles in the play are Sylvia, of course; Greg and Kate, a New York couple married 20 years; and one actor (Michael Mullen) who performs three parts, one of which is a female. So, we’ve got a dog, a predictable human couple, and a cross dresser. Not necessarily for this reason, but leave the kids at home for this one. The language and humor are written for mature audiences.
Greg (Don Fowler) is a forty-something who doesn’t like his job and is, frankly, not so lovey-dovey with wife Kate (Suzanne Dean). During a meditative interlude at the park, Greg meets Sylvia (Kim Patterson), a mixed breed stray with a winsome smile, and proceeds to adopt her on the spot. When Kate comes home from work this night, she is not happy with the introduction of another female, however slobbery and furry, into her humble home. After a short time of stressful toleration, Kate becomes more and more jealous of the attention her mate is paying this mutt (“Get that dog off the couch!”) and comedic tension ensues.
Why did CLOSBC select a work featuring a dog in the lead (on the lead?)?
Stephanie Coltrin, longtime director and producer of CLOSBC productions both in Hermosa and at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center (and the likely director of most Hermosa Playhouse shows this coming season), explains:
“There are so many dog lovers in the South Bay and we decided to revive ‘Sylvia’ – we did it a few years ago,” she said. “When locals get together, we sit up until 3 a.m. talking about our dogs.”
On stage is a unit set, with Greg’s and Kate’s apartment being center stage. “Everything else is played around it. It’s fun to do so many locations on a set that doesn’t move,” said Coltrin.
The original production of Gurney’s play was done in 1995 at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York. The original Sylvia was performed by Sarah Jessica Parker (“Sex and the City”), for which she received much acclaim and many awards for the nearly 200 performances of the inaugural. In today’s printed text of the play, author Gurney dedicates the work to Parker.
“But, ‘Sylvia’ was written before Parker became involved,” explained Coltrin. “Many wouldn’t produce the show because they were afraid of being politically incorrect in portraying a woman wearing a collar and being led across stage on all fours. The Manhattan Theatre Club finally stepped forward and said they’d try it, and they thought the Club could get Parker for the lead.”
Good for them; good for Gurney, good for Parker, and good for the many who have seen the thousands of productions mounted across the country in venues large and small. “Sylvia” has become a community and dinner theater staple, thanks to the dry wit of the script and the economic ease of a small cast and a small set.
“It’s a great piece,” said Coltrin. “It’s funny, charming and poignant and it fits anywhere.”
She said the rehearsals have been fun. “It’s an interesting challenge dealing with a character that’s a dog. We so humanize our animals. I have conversations with my dog all the time, and most non-dog-owners think I’m crazy. How much of Sylvia do we portray as a dog, how much a human? And, how much of the pet’s personality is merely the perception of its owners?”
Did I mention to leave the kids at home? Best not to bring Fido, either. The snack bar at the Playhouse won’t be offering Milk Bones.
Sylvia is onstage at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse, Pier and PCH. Performances, Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees on Jan. 18 and 25 at 2 p.m., plus an evening show on Sunday, Jan. 18, at 7 p.m. Tickets $35-$45. Closes Jan. 25. Call 310-372-4477 or visit hermosabeachplayhouse.com. ER