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As an indie filmmaker living in the Inland Empire in California, my exposure to theater has been more than limited. When I resided in New York and Chicago, I loved to attend plays. Los Angeles’ theater row is small, but it has ton’s of character. The city itself is so large, and theaters litter neighborhoods so sporadically, it’s hard to keep up what is running where. Let’s face it, LA is the Silver Screen, not the stage. So when I agreed to cover the reprisal of A.R. Gurney’s play “Sylvia”, I was a little apprehensive. I knew nothing about the play, or the playwright, and what’s more, is I knew nothing about the celebrated lead Tanna Frederick, though I’d read many good things.
The play takes place in Manhattan, with a couple of the city’s typical middle aged types. Greg, played by Stephen Howard, and his wife Kate, played by Cathy Arden, are recently living in an empty house as the last of their children has gone off to college. Kate is enjoying a sort of rebirth, excelling at her teaching job, and loving life without the responsibility of being a mom. Greg has hit the proverbial middle aged wall, feeling lost, and wanting meaning in what he feels has become a stale life and career. Enter Sylvia, a dog that Greg finds in Central Park. The dog is a stray, but Greg feels a sort of connection, and decides he needs to bring it home with him.
Needless to say, Kate is less than enthused, affectionately calling the dog Saliva, instead of Sylvia. The rest of the play plays out in humorous fashion as Kate must deal with her husbands new found love for someone other than her. It’s almost as if there is a sense of an affair, without the actual affair, which allows the two to play out their apprehensions and issues with their marriage without the true threat of another woman. Stephen and Cathy play their roles well, seeming like typical New Yorkers, as I used to live there. I don’t mean this to be negative, but there was nothing overly exciting about their performances. They were just good, but good enough to make the play fun and engaging.
On the other hand, Tanna Frederick was charming, and stellar playing Sylvia. When I first saw that a human was going to be playing a dog, and her only dialogue being an inner monologue of what would truthfully be what our pets probably think, I was skeptical. I didn’t think this would be easy. I figured it’d be forced, and with that performance taking place within a scene where two other actors are being real people, with real issues, I figured the schtick would get lost. Happily, Ms. Frederick was so good, she made me lose any sense of doubt I had that the play would be good. She was convincing as a true to life, in love, dog. Her facial expressions, and her energy held the audience entranced. I felt like Tanna excelled, and is the sole reason I dug this play, and should be the same for anyone else.
If I have any criticism about this play, it’s that, at times, Frederick came off as a child. And with that being said, it was hard to watch some of the more passionate and affectionate scenes between Greg and Sylvia. I chalk this up to Frederick being so committed, she was trying to make the audience identify with a being we couldn’t possibly identify with. That, and I feel like there wasn’t enough in the script about why Greg was so unhappy, he’d be willing to quit his job so abruptly, and decide he was so in love with a dog. I know the script was already written long ago, but maybe some creative changes to make us as an audience get it more. The play was very entertaining, but not as insightful as I feel it could have been. I think it had tremendous opportunity for director Gary Imhoff to make this a standard for unconventional mid life crisis marital stories, but he didn’t.
The play was charming, and funny, and the performances were good enough, with the exception of Frederick, and in the end, I was left content. I didn’t feel like I wasted my time, and I was entertained. The play is well worth the dough, and if you want to watch a sure soon to be star on stage and indie film, go check out Sylvia, if only to see Tanna Frederick show how an actor can play more than just a human. Go see Sylvia, currently running in Santa Monica at the Edgemar Center For The Arts.
John Flores is a multi-award nominated indie filmmaker living with his wife and son just outside of Los Angeles.
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