FLORIDA WEEKLY – “Falling in love with Sylvia at Florida Rep”

FLORIDA WEEKLY – “Falling in love with Sylvia at Florida Rep”

ARTS COMMENTARY| November 07, 2017

nancySTETSON at nstetson@floridaweekly.com

Read the Full Review Here

Dog lovers should never marry dog haters.

They just don’t get it.

In this kind of union, I wouldn’t blame the marriage for breaking up due to irreconcilable differences.

Dog lovers appreciate the affection and loyalty a canine gives without reserve.

Dog haters just see them as smelly, messy, four-footed creatures that shed and drool.

In “Sylvia,” the opening show of Florida Repertory Theatre’s 20th season, Kate (Carrie Lund) is upset when her husband Greg (John Ottavino) brings home a dog named Sylvia (played with unbridled sass by Michelle Damato.) He found her in a park and fell in love, even though his wife has said she doesn’t want any dogs at this point in their lives.

This play by AR Gurney, who also wrote “The Cocktail Hour,” “Indian Blood” and “Love Letters,” just to name a few, last graced the venue in 2011. Producing Artistic Director Robert Cacioppo brought it back due to overwhelming popular demand. Waiting just a season or two more would have raised the anticipation even more, for me, but this quartet of actors gives a solid performance. And yes, the ending still makes me cry, dammit.

Ms. Damato deserves a jumbo box of Milk-Bones for her energetic performance. She delivers an uncanny impersonation of a dog: the look of pure devotion she bestows on Greg, the way her front paws twitch when she’s sleeping, how she turns around and around before lying down.

The outfits costume designer Alexandria Vazquez gives her also help. Ms. Damato’s pigtails look just like floppy ears. And when we first meet her, she’s in a tan denim vest that’s mostly brown fur, with patches of fur on her back pants pockets, wrists, and ankles.

Sylvia is a dog that talks. She talks to her humans, Greg and Kate, with asides to us, the audience.

Because she plays the titular character, it’s Ms. Damato who makes or breaks the show, and she delivers. A comedic dynamo, she quivers with puppy energy even when sitting still. She’s inquisitive, running around the room, checking out everything. And, like all dogs, she just can’t resist the couch, even when she learns it’s forbidden.

The way she delivers her lines is just as funny as her physical comedy. Streetsmart and feisty, she’s a New York dog with a real New York attitude. One of my favorite scenes is when she spies a cat underneath a car and starts shouting at it, using language definitely not for children’s ears.

As Sylvia, she’s foul-mouthed and sassy, but also inquisitive and devoted and full of unconditional love.

Mr. Ottavino is relatable as a man going through a mid-life crisis: He’s frustrated with his job and questioning his place in life. Another character describes him as being in “those dangerous years” — those years after the first hint of upcoming retirement and the whiff of the nursing home. Meanwhile, Ms. Lund, as his wife, is just starting to make advances in her career and gain recognition (though Greg belittles it as just a phase).

Hands down, Ms. Lund has the most thankless role. You want her character to succeed in her career, but it’s hard to warm to her, as she’s so dour and negative about dogs. The playwright gives the audience no positive scenes with Kate prior to the unleashing of her objectives about Sylvia. You can understand that she doesn’t want the added responsibility of taking care of a dog and wants to have a free social life with her husband, but Kate just seems to hate dogs so much, you find yourself rooting for her husband.

Of course, Sylvia can seem like “the other woman,” almost like a mistress. Greg lavishes attention and love upon her while neglecting his wife.

David Breitbarth plays a trio of roles. The first is Tom, a macho man Greg meets at the dog park. Tom reads a lot of books and philosophizes a lot. He so relates to his own dog that he refuses to have the pooch neutered.

But it’s his two other characters that threaten to steal the show. His Phyllis is a family friend — a woman of a certain age from the East Side dressed in a Chanel suit with a double strand of pearls at her throat. And he also plays Leslie, a therapist of indeterminate gender — or, as Leslie puts it, “I let my patients select my gender.” (Ms. Vazquez again works her magic here, putting Mr. Breitbarth in a flowing New Age-style tunic.)

“Sylvia” is the kind of show where absurdity reigns: If women can be dogs, then some men can love their goldfish so much they bathe with them in the tub. At one point, three of the characters start singing a Cole Porter song.

It’s a strange little play, but director Maureen Heffernan treats it not only with just the right light touch but with care and respect for the characters. And it’s to her credit, and Mr. Breitbarth’s, that neither of the actor’s female roles is played for mockery.

Designer Ray Recht’s minimalist set is a sedate, gray-walled apartment with white molding and leather furniture. The backdrop is a wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor sea of apartment windows of various-sized rectangles and squares.

“You saved my life,” Sylvia declares earnestly and gratefully in Act I.

And if you know anything about dogs, you won’t be surprised that I attest she, in return, saves theirs. Because that’s what dogs always do, if we let them. ¦