- OnStage Associate Connecticut Critic
I have a bad habit of criticizing trite or formulaic jokes by calling them “sitcom-y.” I even used the phrase in my last piece for Eastbound Theatre. But maybe that’s wrong, at least to use it as such a blanket term. There certainly is bad comedy writing both on stage and television, but calling all uninspired comedy “sitcom-y” is unfair both to writers and those reading my reviews.
Case in point: A.R. Gurney’s delightful “Sylvia” which is sitcom-like in all the best ways. The jokes have the patter of a 3-camera comedy but almost all of them land. The main characters – a middle-aged, affluent couple struggling to find meaning in their newly-childless apartment – brings to mind a number of TV shows. Even the central gimmick feels like it could be a vehicle for any number of gifted comediennes.
But none of that is a slight to “Sylvia,” a fun and thoughtful comedy, that is currently running at Milford, CT’s Eastbound Theatre. When done right, “Sylvia” proves an airy dessert of a play with a plum role for a very special actress. In this production, under Kevin Pelkey’s direction, that spot goes to Kate Buffone. Dressed in cut-off jean shorts and a fluffy sweater, she may look like the typical young woman you’d find roaming the streets of New York. But Sylvia is a dog – quite literally.
In the first scene, she is brought home by businessman Greg (Phil Lorenzo) after being found wandering, leashless, in the park. Bored with his soulless corporate job, Greg takes an immediate liking to this high-spirited pooch, who (somehow) can speak English and be understood by Greg. At least she can understand him better than his wife Kate (Jennifer Ju), an inner-city school teacher who wants her house quiet and neat now that the kids have left the nest.
Their quick banter, coupled with Buffone’s buoyant physical comedy, starts the show off on a very high note. Soon, the relationship between Greg and Sylvia grows stronger while the bond between husband and wife weakens. Not helping the situation is an overly friendly dog owner (John Cassidy), Kate’s boozy friend (John Cassidy in drag) and their genderfluid marriage counselor (John Cassidy, again).
The show’s plot is mainly a vehicle for comedic bits involving our anthropomorphic canine, many of which are very funny, and a sweet meditation on the importance of communication in a 30-something-year-old marriage. Even if the script runs out of steam midway through the second act, many of the moments are real standouts including Sylvia’s hilarious tryst with a stud name Bowser and a sweet, fine-tuned scene at the airport that culminates in a performance of a Cole Porter tune.
Lorenzo is fantastic as Greg, bringing a lot of warmth, energy and Jon Cryer neuroses to the stage. His strong chemistry with Buffone make the first act breeze by, aided by Cassidy’s impressive turn in multiple roles. The playful way this cast works together is what makes “Sylvia” really sing.
But once we get into act two some fatigue starts to set it. The material becomes repetitive and Pelkey’s direction doesn’t bring much new to the table. I wanted more shtick, more variation in blocking, more energy, more original ideas that weren’t fully planted in the script. Too many jokes knocked down a few pins without bowling a strike.
By coincidence, I attended a special benefit production of “Sylvia” for a local dog shelter. An hour or so before the show, a handful of adorable puppies were brought in for adoption and a raffle was presented at intermission. With them came a keen sense of community in the intimate, cabaret-style Milford Arts Center theater, one you don’t always get at local productions. Eastbound Theatre’s “Sylvia” sometimes whispered when it could have shouted and never quite lived up to its full potential. But nevertheless, it proved a good showcase for some talented community theater actors and the very supportive crowd was having a great time for a great cause. By the time the matinee concluded, the puppies had been adopted and I left thankful, once again, that Connecticut has such a beautiful community theater scene.
“Sylvia” runs through February 18th at the Eastbound Theatre in Milford, CT.