Uncommon Insight, Coming From a Dog


You may want to ask yourself whether you can trust a confessed dog fanatic to review “Sylvia,” the Long Wharf Theater’s current attraction. So I want to reassure you that I am sometimes not completely entranced by plays, movies and books about my favorite animal. Sometimes.

A. R. Gurney’s “Sylvia,” which was a huge success Off Broadway in 1995, is about a poodle-Labrador retriever mix, known these days as a Labradoodle. We know this because the human characters discuss it. The actress wears not even a hint of a dog costume or accessory.

Sylvia (although she seems to have been abandoned, she wears an ID tag with that name), is a frisky female, who latches on to a nice middle-aged New Yorker one day in the park. He takes her home to his wife, who is appalled and does not want to make the arrangement permanent. To express her distaste, she begins referring to the dog as Saliva.

Saliva — I mean Sylvia — was played in New York by Sarah Jessica Parker, one of the few actresses who can deliver that much intense, puppylike energy and make it more adorable than annoying. Although I never saw anything more than publicity clips of Ms. Parker’s performance, I was prepared to hate Erica Sullivan, who plays the role at Long Wharf.

Color me wrong. Ms. Sullivan (a puppy herself — Yale School of Drama, 2009) is so lovable, so personable and so full of anthropomorphized canine life that audiences cannot resist siding with Greg (John Procaccino), her besotted new owner. Mr. Procaccino is charming and sympathetic, playing a man whose defining life roles are coming apart.

His wife, Kate (Karen Ziemba), is the closest thing to a villain in the play. But there is every reason to sympathize with her. She and Greg have moved from the suburbs into Manhattan now that their children are grown and out of the house. She has taken up teaching, and it is going well. Kate loves this new calm, orderly existence; the shakiness of Greg’s Wall Street career is upset enough, without adding a frenzied, flawed animal to the mix.

Ms. Ziemba, a Broadway musical veteran and a Tony Award nominee, fits right into this nonmusical comedy. But there is one priceless musical moment. As Kate boards a plane, Greg lingers at the airport after seeing her off. While Sylvia waits at home alone, she begins singing “Every time we say goodbye, I die a little.” Then the humans join in, each in his or her separate loneliness. Ms. Ziemba’s voice, naturally, outshines the others — but not enough to kill the delicately balanced humor and poignancy of the moment.

Let’s remember who gave Sylvia life: A. R. Gurney, the chronicler of sophisticated upper-middle-class angst, author of plays like “The Cocktail Party,” “The Dining Room,” “Love Letters” and “Mrs. Farnsworth,” is a man gifted with uncommon insight into human motivations and frailties. So when he turns his gift to the analysis of what a dog might really be thinking and really want, it should not be surprising that the results are so rich. (Gurneyish touch: There is talk about the dog putting Greg and Kate’s marriage at risk.)

Sylvia does speak, of course. “Listen, it’s a tough world out there, lady,” she says when Kate proposes sending her to the pound. Then she explains the awful meaning of the “time limit” that pounds and shelters impose.

Not having seen the play before, I had assumed that only the audience would hear and understand Sylvia’s words. But Greg and Kate do understand, whether literally or emotionally, and respond.

The difference between “Sylvia” and other popular dog tales of recent years, like “My Dog Skip” and “Marley and Me,” is that those focus on what a relationship with a dog means to us. “Sylvia” concentrates just as much on what our actions and feelings mean to dogs. And though people with crying tendencies will cry at the end, there is nothing sentimental about it.

Considerable credit for this goes to Eric Ting’s bouncy but deliberately hard-edged direction. Frank J. Alberino’s set is understated and gracefully clever. Jacob Ming-Trent plays three roles expertly. One is male, one is female, and one is a therapist we’re not sure about (“I let my patients select my gender”).

So much of Sylvia’s dialogue is a revelation, but the tricks-and-treats scene stands out. Sylvia does a trick. Greg praises her and pops a treat into her mouth.

Then he gives the command for a second trick. Sylvia replies, “I’m still eating.”