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Review: 'Sylvia' at Hermosa Beach Playhouse

January 20, 2009 |  3:30 pm

SylviaathermosabeachplaLong before Marley gave Jennifer Aniston marital advice, A.R. Gurney considered love from a dog’s-eye view. “Sylvia,” his droll comedy of male menopause, is receiving a crisply entertaining revival by Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse, thanks to the bounding energy of Kimberly Patterson in the title role.

Gurney’s play isn’t that old — it premiered in 1995, starring Sarah Jessica Parker — but it already feels like a minor classic. “Sylvia's” irresistible conceit of an actress playing a dog with a human voice but canine logic articulates the fervent, undignified need for unconditional love that pets bring out in us.

Somewhere just off Central Park, financier Greg (Don Fowler) and Shakespeare educator Kate (Suzanne Dean) are adjusting to their empty nest. Kate has found new purpose in her career, but Greg has begun to take longer lunch breaks, sometimes lasting until breakfast the next day.

Feeling unmoored, he impulsively adopts an excitable mutt named Sylvia, and it’s love at first sniff.  Sylvia quickly takes over the couch, the apartment and finally Greg’s entire emotional life. Kate realizes she’s married to a man who shares his hairbrush and deepest intimacies with his dog, a crisis she relates with growing alarm to her friends and shrink (all played by Michael Mullen). Greg will have to choose which female will be his alpha mate.

Gurney’s play isn’t terribly complicated; it’s your basic mid-life crisis. But “Sylvia's” comic kick comes from blurring the line between human and pooch, and Patterson attacks her role like a new chew toy. Eager, adoring and instinctual, she fires off zingers with ease. “Excuse me, I’ve got to check my messages,” she says, sniffing the latest tinkles around a park tree.  Even her unruly brown hair seems dog-like. Her performance so dominates that the other actors feel canine: Fowler is a mellow St. Bernard to Dean’s sharp pinscher. Director Stephanie A. Coltrin calibrates the play’s rising stakes with a confident hand, but the marriage always feels a little abstract. We believe this couple has grown apart, but it’s hard to imagine they were ever together.

The production has plenty of urban sleek, from Christopher Beyries’ elegant apartment set to Erik Bleuer’s witty sound design. And Christa Armendariz’s costumes for Sylvia, from scruffy patchwork sweater to sexy little black dress, reflect Greg’s shifting view of his furry companion. Strange how quickly we accept Sylvia on all fours, telling Greg he’s God. At one time or another, we’ve all been on the love leash.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

Sylvia,” Hermosa Beach Playhouse, 710 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach. 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $35-$45. (310) 372-4477. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Caption: Suzanne Dean, Don Fowler and Kimberly Patterson in "Sylvia." Credit: Alysa Brennan