By A. R. Gurney
Directed by Judy Braha
At the New Rep, Newton MA --
Through February 16th

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

"Sylvia" is a talking dog. She doesn't just do one bark for "yes" two for "no"-- she exclaims, she expounds, she apologizes, she expatiates: for paragraphs at a time. Sylvia loves Greg, an aging empty-nested WASP who has fallen into a depression the makes the humans around him seem to him like cartoon figures. Only Sylvia, the mongrel bitch who attached herself to him when he was sitting on a bench in the park thinking about how much he hates his job and his boss, registers on Greg's depressed consciousness as a three-dimensional being capable of giving and receiving love.

If this sounds to you like a situation that calls for stern measures rather the jumping off point for a poignant comedy, then stay away from A. R. Gurney 's latest play. But for the rest of us, all the self-indulgent self-deluded sentimentalists who see our furry companions as a blessed source of sanity in an increasingly virtual world and unabashedly dote on them, "Sylvia" is just the ticket. The New Rep 's savvy staging offers a dose of animal spirits liberally laced with laughter to get us through the worst of a New England winter. I laughed, I cried, I had a wonderful time -- and then I went home and told Daisy and Flora and Oeddypuss all about it.

Richard McElvain is perfect as Greg, the eternal straight man. A true Gurney hero, Greg's glands are functioning and his heart is in the right place, always; but both are so buried under layers of Puritan morality and prep-school manners that his body's messages have to be exhumed and scrutinized like the hieroglyphics of some long-lost tribe. He bumbles through a world that everyone else seems to have figured out, listening intently and doggedly (!) trying to connect their interpretations to his dumb pain. But only Sylvia, with her eloquent eyes, exuberant bark and uninhibited body language, makes sense to him. McElvain grounds and grades our sympathy so that what makes sense to Greg makes sense to us, too.

Sylvia is played by Eva Kaminsky , and "play" is exactly right. Director Judy Braha has guided her through an amazing repertoire of zoomorphic behavior, and the delight we take in seeing Kaminsky romp, roll over, scratch herself, beg for a treat, or fetch is the same delight we take in the anthropomorpic behavior of our beloved pets. Somehow I'd imagined that Catie McCool would costume an actress playing a dog in the equivalent of a fur coat. But Kaminsky wears teenage gear, changing costume and hair-do to express her relationships in each scene -- daughter, Other Woman, friend -- and even donning a French Beret when a trip to the grooming parlour brings out the poodle in her.

Sheila Stasack has the thankless role of Greg's wife Kate. At this point in Greg's crisis his wife seems to him pure superego, the affectless voice of sweet reason. Although Greg clings axiomatically to the notion of love and loyalty between spouses, that's all the marriage is at the moment: a notion. Compared to what he has going with Sylvia----! Wife Kate and the Canine Other Woman communicate almost as well as Greg and Sylvia, but it's hard to warm up to Stasack's Kate when she's pegged by the plot as cold calculation while Sylvia gets to be the Life Force. Gurney has tacked onto the end of his play a twelve-years-later "real-life" epilogue where Sylvia drops her human guise for paws and fur and Kate is allowed to emerge from the schematic plot into a humanity equal to Greg's. At this point Stasack is allowed to unleash her natural charm.

The other three characters in the play are cartoon figures who represent the faddish attitudes that are what our era has to offer by way of worldly wisdom. They are all portrayed by Chloe Leamon. Having a macho blue-collar man, a brittle socialite, and an androgynous New Age therapist all the same under their differing eccentricities is a clever bit of craftsmanship -- it saves the producer a considerable amount in salaries, plus it turns three so-so cameos into a virtuoso opportunity any actress would kill for. But it is also brilliant psychology, distancing these members of the species homo sapiens via the same sort of device that brings Sylvia up close and personal.. And think about the metaphorical implications!

Leamon's Tom, the dog guy who glories in his familiarity -- via best seller nonfiction--with primal instincts, is a splendid comic creation. Her Phyllis, while less of a thrilling stretch, is a good contrast and Leamon's characterization is filled with telling detail. Phyllis is a Kate gone dreadfully wrong. Leslie, the androgynous shrink, is the farthest out, the nightmare an embattled middle-aged white male sees waiting at the end of society's ride to hell in a handbasket. I thought Leamon's interpretation, which owes a lot to Dr. Strangelove, too far over the top to be genuinely funny or frightening, but there was enough laughter in the audience to indicate that mine is not the majority opinion.

Sarah Sullivan 's scenic design and Derek Holbrook's sound support Gurney's central conceit admirably. It fact, the New Rep's "Sylvia" is admirable all round, and a rare treat -- provided that you are the sort who likes dogs. For the pooch-averse, and for the firm anti-anthropomorphicist, it must amount to two hours of hell.