Dog Days: SYLVIA @ Act II Playhouse in Ambler

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

A prolific playwright who first made an impression in 1981 with The Dining Room, A.R. Gurney is the chronicler of all things WASP. The foibles and neuroses of the upper middle class have been lovingly—and humorously—explored in such works as Love Letters, The Cocktail Hour and Middle Ages. SYLVIA, now onstage at Ambler’s Act II Playhouse, is no exception.

Jessica Bedford (on knees), Greg Wood and Mary Elizabeth Scallen star in Act II Playhouse's production of SYLVIA by A.R. Gurney. (Photo credit: Bill D'Agostino)

The play is a unique look at a couple’s mid-life crisis. Kate (Mary Elizabeth Scallen) and Greg (Greg Wood) are empty nesters who have moved to Manhattan. Kate is exhilarated by her new job as a teacher and all the city has to offer; Greg, not so much. He feels at a loss in this new phase of life and doesn’t know how to express this to his wife. (I know, sounds deep, but it’s a comedy—trust me.) During an escape from his dreaded job, Greg finds Sylvia, a stray dog, in the park and brings her home. Greg is thoroughly enamored, but Sylvia and Kate take an instant dislike to one another. The unique spin here is that Sylvia is played by a comely young actress—in Act II’s case, the lovely Jessica Bedford.

The original production had a very short run—only 167 performances. However, it received Drama Desk Award nominations for Outstanding Play and Outstanding Costume Design, and went on to be the most performed play regionally in the 1996—97 season. The cast included Sarah Jessica Parker (in her pre-Carrie Bradshaw days) as the title character. She was nominated for a Drama Desk Award as Outstanding Actress in a Play.

A fan of Gurney, and SYLVIA in particular, director Harriet Power has crafted a wonderfully warm and funny opener for the company’s 13th season. Her sense of play is apparent in every finely detailed moment of this well-paced production. She has elicited nuanced performances from all of her actors, including the fourth member of the cast, Paul Felder. Felder is a chameleon essaying three very different supporting roles that are side-splittingly hilarious. I applaud his comedic skills—my companion and I were mightily impressed. I won’t give any details of the three supporting roles because I don’t want to spoil it for you.

At the core of the play is the relationship between Greg and Sylvia. Mr. Wood and Ms. Bedford really have wonderful chemistry and the audience instantly is attuned to the whole owner/pet dynamic. A seasoned performer, Wood is generally seen in Shakespearean or dramatic roles; it is a great treat to watch him thoroughly enjoy the fun of this character. He does an excellent job of slowly sliding into the mindset of someone whose world revolves around their pet. You instantly empathize with his lost soul portrayal of a man in the throes of a mid-life crisis. It was a pleasant surprise to see yet another facet of this gifted actor. I have seen Ms. Bedford in a couple of productions at Villanova and enjoyed her work immensely; she is a winning new face on the professional Philly scene. She brought some wonderful physicality—and a touch of sexiness—to the role. You can tell she spent a lot of time studying her own dog; you totally buy into the fun of the concept and enjoy her doggie actions. I look forward to watching her grow even more as an actress.

As Kate, Ms. Scallen has brilliantly captured the woman who, though she loved raising her family, is exhilarated by the freedom she now has to go new places and see new things. And the excitement of embarking on a career as a teacher finally after years of squeezing in her own education between laundry and Little League games. She is caught off guard by the changes in her husband and doesn’t know what to do. As Greg gets more and more obsessed by Sylvia, Scallen deftly shows us a wife coming unglued.

All four talented members of the ensemble have created very real people—you believe every moment of the story—even the more outrageous ones. This makes the comedy all the better because it’s grounded in such truth.

Act II’s design staff has yet again managed to cleverly fit multiple locations onto their very streamlined stage in an interesting way. As you enter the house you see the main playing space—the simple living room of Kate and Greg’s Manhattan apartment. Outside the window is a wonderfully skewed cutout of the New York skyline—ah, a clue that things are going to be humorously off. Resident set designer Dirk Durosette has managed to also fit in a corner of a dog park, a waiting area at an airport and a therapist’s office by just some simple flipping of a flat and re-angling of a door frame. As you’re absorbing all of this, you’re listening to a smooth, jazzy set of pre-show music that gets you right into “A New York State of Mind.” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) David O’Connor’s soundscape continues to delight throughout. Lights by James Leitner do a great job of creating time and place, and focusing the attention where it needs to be. And Rosemarie McKelvey’s costumes are spot on, as usual. She does a wonderful job of telling you little things about the characters through the clothes they wear.

SYLVIA is a funny commentary on pets and their owners, mid-life and relationships. Act II is off to a rollicking start—no “Unlucky 13” for them. So, even if you’re dog-tired, head over to Ambler for a fun evening of great theatre—and help support PAWS while you’re at it.

By A.R. Gurney
Directed by Harriet Power
September 6-October 2, 2011
56 E. Butler Pike
Ambler, PA 19002
215-654-0200  `

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