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Fleas and All

Fetching Cast of Gurney's 'Sylvia' Is Its Own Treat


Not only does Greg have someone new in his life, but he has brought her home and is trying to persuade his wife to let her share the bed. Greg's wife, Kate, attributes his behavior to midlife crisis, though now and again even she has to admit that the little home-wrecker is sort of cute.

The other member of this triangle, meanwhile, just cozies up to Greg for a scratch behind the ears, then flops on her back for a tummy rub.

The other woman is a dog named Sylvia. Like many people who own a pet, Greg and Kate think they understand what Sylvia is saying. Funny thing is, we understand Sylvia, too. That's because in A.R. Gurney's "Sylvia," the pooch is played by an actress.

An emerging favorite at theaters across the country and a recent hit in Los Angeles, "Sylvia" has padded into the Moulton Theatre in Laguna Beach, panting and wagging its tail. Orange County regular Don Took heads a delightful cast in this Laguna Playhouse production staged by artistic director Andrew Barnicle.

The scene-stealer, though, is Carolyn Barnes as Sylvia. She's as frisky and endearing as any dog you're ever likely to have known.

This 1995 comedy by the author of "The Dining Room" and "Love Letters" is mightily entertaining--a real howl, you might say. Yet it is both more and less than it appears.

Beneath all its cuteness exists a perceptive examination of midlife crisis and the ways in which even the best marriages can drift apart. There aren't enough ideas here to sustain a two-act play, however. The action drags, especially in the second half, and even Sylvia's playfulness becomes tiring.

The story unfolds in present-day Manhattan, and in Jacquie Moffett's cosmopolitan set design, that city's distinctive skyline frames the action. Greg finds Sylvia in Central Park one afternoon when he has wandered off from a job he is beginning to find unrewarding.

It's love at first sight for Greg, but not for Kate. Now that their children have left home, Kate has thrown herself back into her career. She doesn't need a dog distracting her, much less one that is taking her husband's mind off his work and threatening to get him fired.

Sylvia isn't really the problem, though. Greg would be wandering anyway. As is so often the case with pets, Sylvia is solace--a source of unconditional acceptance and love.

The tug of war for Greg's heart is humorously played out in Barnicle's staging. Barnes' Sylvia fixes on Took with sly, seductive eyes and rubs up against him, craving his touch.

At this contact, Took's stiffness and frustration--even his approaching old age--melt away; he becomes almost boyish again. Lisa Robinson's sleek, career-driven Kate looks on jealously. She's not a bad sort, though. She's got a lot of love to give, too; she's just not as fawning about it as Sylvia.

In addition to turning one actress into a dog, the play almost dares the rest of the actors to become hams. The one who falls into this trap is Michael Sandels in multiple roles as . . . well, let's not reveal that, it's part of the fun. In their own ways, these roles are meant to be as playfully artificial as Sylvia's, but Sandels settles for blunt obviousness instead of understated creativity.

Most amusing are the ways in which "Sylvia" replicates a dog's behavior. "Hey hey heys" serve as Sylvia's bark, for instance--though when she spots a cat on one of her walks, she lets loose with a string of expletives that would make even David Mamet blush. (Oddly, audiences find the language wildly funny here, where they would tut-tut it in a Mamet play.)

Dwight Richard Odle's costumes enhance the fun. When Sylvia, who is part poodle, enters after a grooming, for instance, she wears bands of pink tulle at her wrists and ankles, Frenchie style.

So it's really too bad that watching this play is a bit like watching "Cats." As with the Andrew Lloyd Webber show, the concept wins you over for the first few minutes, then slides into a repetitious rut. This dog needs to learn some more tricks.

* "Sylvia," Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. $31-$38. Ends Nov. 29. (949) 497-2787. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Don Took: Greg

Carolyn Barnes: Sylvia

Lisa Robinson: Kate

Michael Sandels: Tom, Phyllis, Leslie

A Laguna Playhouse production. Written by A.R. Gurney. Directed by Andrew Barnicle. Set: Jacquie Moffett. Costumes: Dwight Richard Odle. Lights: Paulie Jenkins. Sound: David Edwards. Stage manager: Nancy Staiger.

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