Animal magnetism

2nd Story unleashes 'Sylvia'
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  April 30, 2014

WOOF! Shea and Hakeem. [Photo by Richard W. Dionne, Jr.]

Magical realism was never a more doggone hoot than in A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia, which 2nd Story Theatre is unleashing (through May 18) for a spirited romp, directed by Pat Hegnauer.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if life were like the Get Fuzzy cartoon strip, in which animals and humans matter-of-factly converse? Playwright Gurney hopes we can become more human by learning to empathize with other species.

That’s not terribly challenging when it comes to dogs. Because dogs are so trusting and men are such pushovers for batting eyes, it’s quite plausible that when a friendly mutt, Sylvia (Lara Hakeem), tries to pick up Greg (Ed Shea) in the park, she’s immediately successful.

Since Greg’s wife, Kate (Sharon Carpentier), is reasonably agreeable rather than wide-eyed in adoration, there is bound to be a disruption when Sylvia is brought home. Kate is annoyed but agrees to test how the change will work out for a few days.

Hakeem is a spirited natural for the role, easily giving Sylvia the buoyant spirit necessary, antennas up for humorous opportunities. We first see her in a scuffed brown leather jacket and distressed jeans, as befits a stray. When Greg springs for some fancy grooming, the French poodle part of Sylvia emerges, complete with beret, wide belt, and boots, all seductive red. Sylvia’s feisty personality comes out hilariously on a walk outside as Hakeem strains at her leash and explodes into a lengthy anti-cat rant. Sniffing objects, she says, “I’ve got to check my messages.”

A fellow dog owner in the park (Jim Sullivan) warns Greg about letting Sylvia get between him and his wife, but that consequence is inevitable. When Greg is at an airport seeing Kate take off on a business trip, it’s hard to restrain a grin as Hakeem warbles Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” into a chew-toy bone (“When you’re near, there’s such an air of spring about it/I can hear a lark somewhere begin to sing about it”).

Sullivan has fun playing another character, a therapist Greg and Kate go to, an unconventional person of ambiguous gender who swings to yin or yang depending on the patient’s need.

Greg hates his job and has been spending less time at it now that Sylvia is in his life, an undeniable obsession. Inevitably, his wife’s patience wears thin as the “few days” experiment drags on and their disagreement on the issue grows louder. Greg agrees to have Sylvia spayed, but her devotion remains undiminished.

Under the influence of all that petting, Greg has become a better person, more open to his emotion, all of which is bound to rub off on his marriage relationship. So Sylvia becomes more than a funny shaggy dog story. It shows one way to humanize ourselves, ironically by using another species as a segue to our own.

Shea is the theater’s artistic director, so taking on this role, as he does with absorbed attention, speaks to the significance of the character as a contemporary Everyman. With all the distractions we have in 21st-century life, who couldn’t be helped by a furry and affectionate little guide to connecting with others?

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