Jealous? Of the dog?!
Jealousy is a slippery thing. A rival for affection might not even be a person. Conflict can arise over a job, a hobby, or a dog. A. R. Gurney’s Sylvia, playing at Next Theater and directed by Mark Ulrich, tells the story of a man, his wife, and his dog.
Kate and Greg are content, upper-middle-class, post-children New Yorkers. They lived in the suburbs for years, but now that their children are both flown the coop, they’ve moved to an apartment in Manhattan. Kate is embarking on a late-life career in education, crusading to bring Shakespeare to Harlem junior high schools. She’s re-starting her life after giving up her youth to husband and children. Greg is increasingly dissatisfied with his life and career in higher finance.
Kate does not like this. They argue, she puts her foot down, Greg convinces her to give it a try. So begins the downward spiral. Greg takes Sylvia to the groomer, tells her she is beautiful, tells her that he loves her, takes long walks with her late at night under the moon, skips work to take her to the park and watch her play. Kate becomes increasingly hostile, and then distant, and finally issues an ultimatum: Sylvia or me.
Gurney peppered the play with the Shakespeare Kate is trying to bring to Harlem pre-adolescents, to humorous effect. The play sometimes seems a little overwrought or melodramatic, but how serious can one be when the central figure is a dog — played by an attractive, vivacious woman at that?
Georgina McKee sparkles as Sylvia. Her appeal triggers Kate’s quietly raging jealousy and allows us to see the myriad ways that jealousy can affect a relationship. Sylvia usurps a place in Greg’s heart that Kate feels ought to be hers. And perhaps it should be. If Sylvia were a young, beautiful, somewhat dimwitted ingénue, we would feel naught but sympathy for Kate. Why shouldn’t we just because Sylvia is a dog? McKee skillfully walks the line between sweetly simple pet and animal bombshell. When she jumps into Greg’s arms, she at once portrays an animal and stirs an undercurrent of something vaguely inappropriate.
David Cecsarini (who also designed the sound for the production) plays Greg as clueless in the way that only middle-aged men can be. He longs for simpler times, for building things with his hands, for the pleasures of miles of green grass. Sylvia represents that nostalgic vision for him, and he is more attached to that than to the dog. Cecsarini does mildly befuddled and earnestly excited very well. Greg comes across as neither creepy nor narcissistic, but rather as sincerely searching for something missing in his life.
The ever-delightful Mary MacDonald Kerr keeps Kate wavering between cold, hard, grasping jealousy and patient tenderness. She genuinely loves Greg, she loves their life together, especially their new life together and all it offers to her. She’s supported him and now she feels, rightly or wrongly, that he owes her the same. Her vision of this part of their life does not include the responsibility of a dog. As Greg’s affection for the dog becomes deeper than she expected, Kerr subtly takes Kate through the five stages of grief before arriving at acceptance.
The scene-stealer is Ryan Schubach, who plays all the supporting characters: a fellow dog owner, who warns Greg about anthropomorphizing an animal too much; Kate’s hoity-toity, alcoholic woman friend; and the genderless couples counselor that Kate drags Greg to see. Schubach has a wonderful sense of comic timing and commanding physical comedy skills. The mannerisms he brings to the three characters differentiate them and are very funny.
Eventually, Greg and Kate make peace and adjust to their new lives, which include Sylvia. Sylvia not only shows that jealousy is everywhere, but also that it’s possible to get over it. There is enough love to go around.
Sylvia runs at Next Act Theater, 255 S. Water Street, through December 18. For tickets and further information, visit the company’s website or call 414 278-0765.