AR Gurney’s play, Sylvia, has been around for just about as long as I’ve been a self-proclaimed theater geek. And I’ve never read or watched the play. What took me so long? Well I’ll first admit (and please don’t go reporting me to ASPCA), I’m not really a dog person. Don’t get me wrong — like Kate, from this play, when they’re someone else’s dog I love them. When it comes to taking care of them — not my thing. I’m not full-on Cruella Da Ville, but if I have the choice between running around with a dog, or anything else, I choose anything else. Needless to say, I was worried when I stepped into Newport Playhouse’s theater. Boy was I wrong. This show, directed by Michael Johnson, is a must-see fall theater event.
I’m always impressed when I see theaters with an intimate space make full use of that space. Tonya Killavey brought a slice of the Big Apple to Newport with a set design that required a park onstage, and with the help of some panels, it’s done so quite effectively to tell this story. The play itself is about a man who brings home a dog he finds in the park, and some pivotal scenes take place there. Being an intimate space, most designers would find this a daunting task, but Killavey’s set delivered.
After finding Sylvia in the park, it isn’t long before Sylvia is disrupting their lives and their marriage. And when you look at the plot, it is awfully simplistic, and doesn’t sound like a night of compelling theater; however, with this cast of four, you’ll find yourself rolling with laughter, and invested in what will happen to Sylvia. Rick Bagley and Pamela Gill play the couple at the center of this play, with director Johnson taking the role of a few characters, and Olivia Sahlin as the dog, Sylvia. Bagley and Gill were perfectly paired, and Bagley produced a terrific performance. Gill, however, who I would assume most dog-loving audiences would not empathize with, brings out a Kate that is not only not the villain, but someone I connected to the entire time. In fact, in the middle of one of her speeches about teaching Shakespeare and not having time for a dog, I turned to my friend — no character has ever spoken what I was feeling so aptly before this. Johnson, of course, pulls out all the punches and is hilarious as the three distinct characters. That brings us to Sahlin, and one of the funniest comedic tales I’ve seen onstage in a while. Again, I can’t help but stress that I’m not a dog person — but I fell in love with Sahlin’s Sylvia. A job well done.
In addition, Newport Playhouse has a terrific buffet and don’t forget to stay for the after-show cabaret, which was updated from the last time I was lucky enough to catch it. If you plan ahead during dinner, you can be greeted with an postshow cocktail or coffee.
Sylvia is not to be missed. My sides hurt from laughing and the performances are truly top notch!
Sylvia is playing at the Newport Playhouse and Cabaret Restaurant until Nov 18. Call 401-848-PLAY or visit newportplayhouse.com for tickets.