Belly Laughs Make "Sylvia" A Howling Success

The cast of "Sylvia" at The Cape Playhouse this week, from left;
Linda Dano, Patrick Quinn, Nancy Anderson (as the pooch
"Sylvia"), and Sam Freed.  Photo by Kathleen A. Fahle

Belly Laughs Make “Sylvia” a Howling Success in Dennis
The Other Woman has four legs and is a Canine!

by Libby Hughes

A.R. Gurney’s “Sylvia” was a howling success on opening night. After a smorgasbord summer for its 80th season, the Cape Playhouse brings down the curtain with a surefire comedy. Don’t wear a tight belt or a tight skirt because they will strangle your belly laughs. Gurney’s play guarantees to be an audience pleaser.

The Genius of Playwright Gurney

In the theatre kingdom, A. R. (Albert Ramsdell) “Pete” Gurney is a prince among playwrights. Of the more than 40 plays Gurney has written, at least half of them are devoted to the vanishing breed of WASPS (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). Gurney himself hails from Buffalo where there is more than snow and football. There is or was aristocracy to which Gurney had generational attachments. He uses humor to sting the foibles of that group. “The Cocktail Hour,” “The Dining Room,” and “The Middle Ages” are stereotypical plays from the WASP generation. Gurney also taught English at M.I.T., and he slips in something from “Henry IV” and “Twelfth Night” and other little literary references, plus a couple of updated political ones—Kofi Annan etc.

The Other Woman is a four-legged dog

And so, where does “Sylvia” fit into this list? Perhaps, Gurney has transferred his WASP obsession to Whatever Animal Sex Pooches because Sylvia is a dog—a poodle mix—who jumps into the lap of middle-aged Greg on a park bench in NYC. Greg is tired of battling the boredom of Wall Street as a broker and finds rebirth in the companionship of this four-legged creature, who introduces him to the homeless of New York and the stars at night. But Sylvia has put Greg’s wife’s nose out of joint. She is jealous of the attention and affectionate terms and time bestowed on the dog. It is a bone of contention. Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to unravel the resolution here.        

Stunning piece of direction by Pamela Hunt

This is an amazing quartet of actors. One of them plays three different roles. Although each actor has individual gifts, the direction by Pamela Hunt deserves major credit. What appeared to be a very low-keyed opening, gradually built to hilarious pitches by the middle of the first act and throughout the second act. She paced it slowly to let it hit the highs and lows for variety. Her skills have been seen many times over the years at the Playhouse.

Talented quartet of actors

On stage, animals and children are tremendous competition for actors. Even though Sylvia is played by an actress, she is mesmeric. Nancy Anderson from Needham, MA on left has captured the essence of pooch Sylvia. She is part ballerina with her pink, poodle tutu; she is part Cheshire cat; and she is part perky pooch. She lends acrobatic enchantment to the gestures of the animal kingdom by convincing us that she is a dog who talks. Anderson has the audience shaking with laughter and gasping for breath when she jumps up on Phyllis, the guest and friend of Kate. Who hasn’t had a dog that jumps up on guests, causing terrible embarrassment?

Emmy Award winner Linda Dano let her characterization of Kate, Greg’s wife, grow until it matched Patrick Quinn’s hilarious pitch as Phyllis. When Patrick Quinn played the psychiatrist, Dano broke out of character into laughter onstage as did everyone in the audience. Who could possibly keep a straight face? When she broke the fourth wall to speak to the audience at the end, it was believable.

Sam Freed was totally credible as affable Greg, the man smitten with Sylvia. His conversations with the dog and decision to give the dog away were sincere and poignant.

Patrick Quinn gives Robin Williams a run for his money. His comedic sense and timing are a joy to watch. He creates girth-shaking hilarity as Phyllis and as Leslie, the flapper coiffed psychiatrist. His third character is Tom, the "biophile” man with the dog in the park. All three are completely different and perfect comedic vignettes. Hopefully Mr. Quinn has as much fun as President of Actors’ Equity as he does on stage!

Professional set design

Richard Chambers gets better and better. Less is more with his set designs. The simplicity of the Manhattan apartment against the New York skyline is magical, combined with Christopher Chambers’ nighttime lights in the buildings. Even the simple suggestion of an airport with the view of the runway and just the branches of trees for the park make clear statements. Matthew Pachtman’s costumes, too, had simplicity and elegance. Sylvia’s costumes had definite charm and variety.

Best Line of the night

Artistic director, Evans Haile, gave the best line of the evening. In his farewell sales pitch before the show, he described three reasons to subscribe for season tickets. The third one was a zinger, “If you have unwanted guests, send them over to the theatre to get rid of them!” That line resonated with everyone, who laughed and applauded like crazy.

Be sure not to miss this magical piece of hilarity. A great way to spend time around Labor Day.

Performances run August 28 through September 9, Monday through Saturday at 8:00 pm. Matinees Wednesdays at 2:00 pm; Saturday 9/2 at 4:00pm; Thursday 9/7 at 2:00pm. The Cape Playhouse, 820 Route 6A, Dennis. Call 508-385-3911. welcomes thoughtful comments and the varied opinions of our readers. We are in no way obligated to post or allow comments that our moderators deem inappropriate. We reserve the right to delete comments we perceive as profane, vulgar, threatening, offensive, racially-biased, homophobic, slanderous, hateful or just plain rude. Commenters may not attack or insult other commenters, readers or writers. Commenters who persist in posting inappropriate comments will be banned from commenting on