Taking a break from his usual routine — chronicling the decline of the Eastern-seaboard WASP — in 1995, A.R. Gurney wrote the bittersweet comedy Sylvia, now onstage at Little Lake Theatre Company.
It's set in the Manhattan apartment of empty-nester couple Greg and Kate, and the title character is an abandoned dog Greg finds in a park. But Kate's not feeling the love. Now that the kids are in college, she's decided to take care of herself, not a pet. Greg, dealing with own issues, doesn't want to get rid of Sylvia, who, by being an adoring and unquestioning presence, provides Greg with emotional tranquility. Kate begins to feel, somewhat surprisingly, jealous of Sylvia ... or rather, of the attention Greg lavishes on her. And, sure enough, there's trouble afoot.
Gurney's a favorite playwright of mine. Whatever problems the characters have in a Gurney play, thanks to their having been overbred and overeducated, they can talk intelligently and quite humorously about them. They may, perhaps, actually talk around their troubles, but Gurney's a good enough writer that he can use their obfuscation to illuminate character.
What he's done very cleverly in Sylvia is to have the dog played by an actress. She speaks directly to Greg and Kate in a translation of what her barking might mean. Gurney's written the character as a smart, slightly batty young woman who easily makes herself the center of Greg and Kate's life. Kate Neubert-Lechner embraces the character with a boundless physicality and a relentless, well, animal energy. Thanks to Sunny Disney Fitchett's direction, Neubert-Lechner never condescends to the role, or plays the cutesy-wutesy angle; she gives a dimensional performance of a character who just happens to be a dog.
Art DeConciliis does remarkable work allowing us to see the emotional cost of all the inchoate questions plaguing Greg regarding his purpose in the world. And Patricia Cena Fuchel's turn as Kate is filled with the conflicting sense of concern and betrayal stirred up by Sylvia's arrival.
If you're not familiar with the play, Sylvia may sound slight and, perhaps, silly; but thanks to Gurney's talent, it's a lot better than you'd think.