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Puppy Love

A dog threatens to break up a marriage in this not very convincing dramedy

Mobtown Players
Melissa O'Brien as Sylvia (right) greets Brian Kraszewski's unenthusiastic Phyllis.
Mobtown Players
Brian S. Kraszewski as Leslie leads Mark C. Franceschini's Greg and Deb Carson's Kate through a disturbing therapy session.
Mobtown Players
Deb Carson as Kate, Mark C. Franceschini as Greg, Melissa O'Brien as Sylvia get on all fours.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 12/9/2009

Sylvia

By A.R. Gurney

Through Dec. 20 at the Mobtown Theater at Meadow Mill. See Mobtown Players for more info.

The best performer in Mobtown Players' Sylvia is, hands down, the dog. Normally, that would be a pretty harsh dig, but seeing as the dog is the center of the show and played winningly and fur-free by Melissa O'Brien, it's fitting. If only the rest of the production, and the source material, could live up to O'Brien's nuanced and exuberant portrayal.

Sylvia is a love triangle of sorts. Kate (Deb Carson) and Greg (Mark C. Franceschini) have been married for 20 years. Their children have gone away to college and they have moved out of the suburbs and into the city. Kate is experiencing true career satisfaction, for what appears to be the first time in her life, while Greg is losing all interest in his job. Into these lives drifting in opposite directions, comes Sylvia, a dog Greg finds abandoned at the park. Kate doesn't want a dog, but she agrees to let Sylvia stay for a few days and ends feeling shut out of the bond between her husband and his dog.

Gurney plays with the way we anthropomorphize our pets by portraying Sylvia as a woman, who speaks instead of barks, and walks on two legs rather than four. Anyone who has had a dog will recognize Sylvia's antics early on in the play, from her absolute adoration of Greg to the way she gets on the couch the second no one is looking. And when Sylvia screams at a cat, "Hey Kitty, you're a sack of shit!" it's easy imagine that is exactly what a dog's thinking when it crossing paths with a feline during a walk. If only the production showed the same depth of understanding for the humans in the play.

Greg's love for Sylvia is seen as an unhealthy obsession, to the point where a marriage counselor tells Kate to divorce Greg and shoot Sylvia. The problem is that there's no real sign of that obsession. He takes Sylvia for walks. He gets her groomed and spayed. He talks to her. If these are signs of a mental illness, then the Pretentious Pooch should have men in white coats with butterfly nets standing outside its doors at all times. Yes, he starts leaving work early, but he hates his job. And no one ever suggests that Kate might try to have more of a relationship with Sylvia, or that her jealousy over Sylvia has more to do with the distance that has grown between her and Greg than the dog.

Assuming Gurney planned for all of this to be apparent in the show—and while we're at it, let's assume Gurney has Kate and Greg incessantly say each other's names as a mirror of the way we talk to our pets—the Mobtown Players production doesn't bring it out. Carson doesn't bring enough warmth or vulnerability to keep Kate from seeming like a shrew. Franceschini is likable, but he can't make lines like "Maybe it's just the anxieties of middle age. Or the sense of disillusionment which goes with late 20th-century capitalism," seem like something one would really say on a walk with their dog as opposed to say, "Good girl!" or "Don't eat that!"

By far the weakest performance comes from Brian Kraszewski, who is saddled with playing the play's three other characters: Phyllis, Kate's high-society friend; Tom, a dog park philosopher who is supposed to be macho but is clearly wearing Phyllis' make up; and Leslie, an androgynous therapist so bad at his/her job he/she suggests the dog murder described above. Kraszewski definitely drew the short straw, but it doesn't help that he brings nothing to any of the parts to ground them in reality.

Jenn Greco's set design is simple and effective and Helenmary Ball's costumes particularly those on Sylvia—her vagabond clothes when she's found at the park, the ruffled ensemble she wears after going to the groomer—add to the storytelling. Caitlin D. Bouxsein shows a deft hand at physical comedy and pacing as the director of this production, but it's a shame she wasn't able to help her actors find deeper layers to bring to an interesting but flawed play.

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