Do you think most Saturday Night Live sketches are an hour and 55 minutes too short?
Does "The Family Circus" comic strip never fail to elicit a hearty chuckle?
Does your bedroom wall feature that poster of a desperate rodent clinging to a rickety limb above the caption: "Oh Sh#@!"?
If you answered yes to one of the above than you'll love Sylvia, Encore Dinner Theatre's so-called comedy about a dog who precipitates a New York couple's midlife crisis.
Curiously enough, Encore! director Eve Tilley decided to outfit her meddling bitch, Sylvia (Elizabeth Kahn), as a latter day Punky-Brewster. This, however, isn't nearly as perplexing as why she chose this exhausting A.R. Gurney play to begin with.
Sylvia begins when happy-go-lucky Greg (Greg Lanning) brings home a smelly mutt to his less-than-thrilled wife, Kate (Jane Fromme), who agrees to harbor it for a few days. To no one's surprise, a few days turns into a few months. Shortly after Sylvia's arrival, Greg begins leaving early from his soul-sucking sales job for long strolls with his new best friend. The two unlikely lovers ponder the differences between dog and man while Sylvia drags Greg around a city he barely knows. As Greg proclaims, "I'm having a truly democratic experience for the first time in my life." Unfortunately, the audience must take his declaration at face value.
Meanwhile, Kate, an ambitious pedagogue bent on colonizing Harlem's youth with Shakespeare, becomes outraged with resentment. This comes to a fore when she gets on all fours to inform her canine rival that, "All you are is a male menopausal moment."
The pivotal relationship between Greg and Sylvia is far from engaging, though it's really no fault of Greg Lanning's, whose straight man recalls a young Jack Lemmon. Elizabeth Kahn has more than enough energy for a sprightly bowser, but not the range. In one memorable scene, she goes apoplectic on a nearby cat. The scene could have been a lot funnier had she given her wide-eyed and forever twitching character a normative frame from which to burst.
Strangely enough, Sylvia's star turns out to be Sallie Walker, a triple threat as Tom (a macho dog owner), Phyllis (a socialite lush), and Leslie (a gender-ambiguous couples therapist). Her range is matched only by her facial acrobatics, which are nearly on par with Jim Carrey's. Despite a few line flubs, her knack for comedic pacing and delivery makes me eager to see her in a different play.
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for comedies that insinuate amorous relations between man and beast. While I'm partial to chickens (see Gonzo and Camilla in The Muppet Movie) or pigs (see Deliverance), I'm more than willing to branch out to canines. It's just that Sylvia asks us to accept the emotional consequence of a talking dog who captivates a thinly sketched man to the point where he forsakes his career and questions his basic values.
I have nothing against farcical premises (some of my best friends are farcical premises), however, their efficacy lies in their potential to continually surprise the audience. Nearly every joke and plot machination in Sylvia is broadcast decades in advance. Personification jokes grow dog-tired after about ten minutes, especially when you're then faced with the grim reality that another hour and a half lies in store. None of this is helped by playwright A.R. Gurney, whose characters are little more than one-dimensional and out-of-date New York stereotypes. Every time Sylvia ventures into the realm of funny, it's forced to return to the burdensome plot of Kate and Greg's facile marriage.
At risk of leaving on a sour note, may I recommend a collection of stories devoted largely to man-pooch relations? Dogwalker by Arthur Bradford, Knopf, 2001.
Presented by the Encore! Dinner Theatre
Red Lion Inn, I-25 & Bijou.
$36 dinner & show, $20 show only. For reservations, call 471-7529.
Fridays and Saturdays, through Dec. 21.
Dinner, 6 p.m.; show, 7:30 p.m.
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