“Sylvia” is a play about no ordinary dog. In her senior project Sally Bernstein ’03, outfitted with a dog collar and high pigtails, plays the title role — a dog that can communicate with her owners, and actors who make it seem perfectly natural.
The piece centers around the relationship of a married couple in New York City, and the events that follow when the husband, Greg (Eric Gilde ’04), finds Sylvia wandering in the park. Greg readily takes her in, and the dog provides him the simple pleasures that his wife Kate (Lisa Siciliano ’05) fails to understand. In fact, a fellow park-goer even manages to convince Greg the he has a gene for appreciating all things natural — a gene that has obviously deteriorated in his wife.
The enjoyment that Greg experiences with the dog provides a stark contrast with his uninteresting job and his joyless marriage. Although Kate has left her role as homemaker, and her career as an English teacher is taking off, Sylvia embodies a serious threat to Kate and her marriage.
Gilde is believable as a passive businessman, enraptured with the simple joy of his dog, and how “real” her affection for him is. Siciliano is convincing as a zealous English teacher of middle schoolers in Harlem, a cheerleader for Shakespearian plays and language itself. She is increasingly the academic, and less able to understand the natural joys that Sylvia represents. In this vein, the more Greg’s attention is focused on Sylvia, the more resentful Kate becomes. This tension culminates in a spoken altercation between wife and dog, ending in them growling at each other, head-to-head on all fours. The comparisons between humans and their animal counterparts grow more pronounced as the play progresses.
But apart from underlying, profound messages, the play holds some comic gems, in the form of Satya Bhabha ’06. A reincarnation of some of the best Saturday Night Live characters, Bhabha gives vitality to each of his four characters, including an enthusiastic book-critic/dog owner in the park, a stray cat, a high-strung New York woman named Phyllis and an androgynous marriage counselor. Phyllis, among other Freudian slips, substitutes “erection” for “election” — Bhabha nails an impression of a wide-eyed Chris Kattan as Andy Dick. Bernstein also has a few light-hearted moments, such as when she struts around to “I’m Too Sexy” after a stint at the salon.
With a less talented cast, such an unusual premise might have dissolved into an embarrassing spectacle. Instead, this play is both comedic — as Bhabha demonstrates — and dramatic. What could have begun as a sentimental snapshot of a couple and their animal best friend takes on many deeper levels, beginning with the ability of the dog to speak to her owners. Bernstein brings genuine excitement and adept physical execution to her part without a sickeningly sweet delivery. She fills each line with earnest sincerity that fleshes out Sylvia as both a friend and companion.
At times, even more surprising than the four letter words coming out this dog’s mouth (and that’s not woof), are the arguments with her owner trying to convince him to leave his wife and run away with her. There are certain turns in dialogue that are unlikely, if not outlandish, but they are tempered with such seriousness that they become believable, and you forget it’s a dog at all. But this becomes the underlying message of the piece — that feelings of loyalty, love and generosity transcend species. From appreciation of loyalty to sexual interest to intellectual excitement, in “Sylvia,” love takes many forms.