Review: 'Sylvia' at Hole in the Wall Theater

Tony Palmieri

  • Connecticut Critic

Hole in the Wall Theater kicks off its 2016/17 Season with Sylvia by A.R. Gurney, directed by Jim Ryan. Sylvia tells the story of Greg (played with understated wit by Steven Siemiatkoski) – a  middle-aged, empty-nester whose career is on a downward trend – and his wife Kate (Jennifer Tellier) whose career is taking off after returning to work post child-rearing.  At the park on a lunch break, Greg meets Sylvia (a dog, played by the plucky Jill Luberto) and brings her home to live. Kate is not pleased. As the play’s action unfolds, Greg’s mid-life crisis and the added strain of his growing relationship with Sylvia build to a critical point for all three main characters. Added to the mix are Tom, a fellow dog-owner full of relationship advice for Greg; Phyllis, a colleague and friend to Kate; and Leslie, a gender-ambiguous marriage counselor, all played with clever comedic timing and chameleon-like physicality by Adam Cormier. The script is marvelous – almost sneaky in the way that it allows the audience an “in” to the mind of a troubled middle-aged man by using the dog as a character to which we can all relate, and allowing for a mid-life affair for Greg without his actually cheating on his wife. When the show debuted in 1995, there was some contention among critics with regard to asking a woman to play a dog; Gurney defended his script, stating that the play contains a “timely message of the need to connect in an increasingly alien and impersonal world. There is a need to connect, not only to a dog, but to other people through the dog.”

I saw the show opening weekend and, despite some funny moments, feel that this production misses the mark in several key areas. The relationship between Greg and Kate – which, really, is the focus of the play – is never developed in a positive way – we feel their strife, which is easy to find in the script, but never a moment where we see their love – no glimpse of the relationship they are working to save.  Tellier’s Kate is strong-willed and competent – which is necessary – but never shows us that moment of connection of which Gurney speaks – not with Greg, not with Sylvia, and not with Phyllis. Tellier seemed to be struggling with her lines, which puts everyone, actors and audience, on edge and makes it difficult to become immersed. Perhaps the most obvious missed connection comes in the form of song. Sylvia is left home alone while Greg brings Kate to the airport for a business trip. As Kate begins to board the plane and Greg watches, the three characters, in isolation, sing Cole Porter’s Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye. It is unimportant whether or not the song is sung beautifully – what we need from it is emotion. Unfortunately, neither Greg nor Kate ever even glance in the direction of the other. While Sylvia is clearly singing to (and about) Greg, there is no indication whatsoever that Kate and Greg are emotionally invested in their own relationship; instead they appear uncomfortable and ambivalent – all of the audience’s sympathy goes to Sylvia.

Another serious misstep is apparent in long and unnecessary scene changes, which break the action and pull the audience out of several poignant moments. Sylvia is directed on an inventive split-stage set, allowing for seamless cross-fade lighting and continuous action, yet each time there is a scene change, a massive living-room set is hauled off (or back on) for no apparent reason. It is unfortunate because Siemiatkoski and Luberto (whose onstage relationship is the most developed) are working hard to create moments that end up truncated by these disruptions.  

Gurney speaks of the need to connect, and 20 years later his point is still relevant. There is irony in the fact that a play about communication and connection ends up being about missed opportunity – it could almost work as a statement, but as it stands this production makes the play’s ending feel incongruous.  Gurney’s script is masterful – it is written so well that, despite a few hiccups in Ryan’s production, the message of the play shines through. Sylvia runs Fridays and Saturdays through October 8.