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Center Stage: New production of ‘Sylvia’ shines at Forida Rep

By Staff | Jan 13, 2011

Florida Rep scores another comedy hit with A.R. Gurney’s witty romp “Sylvia” currently playing at the Arcade in downtown Fort Myers in the River District till Jan. 23. Gurney is the uncrowned “king of wit” when he chronicles the frailties of affluent northeastern WASPS. Gurney always nails the manners, thoughts and ideologies of this WASPish segment of American life. Other works by this award-winning playwright are “The Dining Room,”“Love Letters,” and “The Cocktail Hour,” to mention a few, all successfully presented by Producing Artistic Director Robert Cacioppo; some in Fort Myers and others at the Pirate Playhouse on Sanibel.

“Sylvia” is a romantic comedy which features a love triangle with a real twist. A middle-aged WASP male is undergoing a mid-life crisis, and he is having an obsessive affair with a young poodle (?) of mixed heritage.

Leave it to Gurney to cleverly weave in a moral message about unconditional love and remorse from such an unlikely premise (man and dog affair). It takes a skilled, sensitive director to produce some elements of truth from such a far-out script. Maureen Heffernan fills the bill with imagination, ease and proficiency. Her well-thought-out canine comedy bits, plus addition of the song “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” are perfect examples of her inspired staging.

The play tells the story of what happens when Greg (Gordon McConnell), a quasi happily-married man, brings home a stray, flea-bitten dog. Actually Sylvia (delightfully played to the hilt by Michelle Damato) is the pooch in question; she is as cute and playful as any Disney cartoon critter, but this mademoiselle dog has an agenda.

Greg brings Sylvia to his super-orderly apartment, presents her to his wife Kate (Carrie Lund), and immediately the dog hairs fly. Kate is an ice princess, a neat freak, focused entirely on her career as an English Lit teacher in the NYC school system, teaching Shakespeare in a city school. Kate wants Sylvia and her fleas GONE! However, she reluctantly grants Sylvia a few days reprieve, during which the dog works her canine wiles.

Sylvia provides affection for the love-starved Greg with such doggie devotion that Greg wants to spend all his time attending to her needs. On one of their frequent walks in the park, Greg meets a fellow dog owner, Tom (played by another first rate, multi-talented actor, Chris Clavelli). Tom warns Greg that the girl-named dog Sylvia, will come between him and Kate. I must add here, that Clavelli does a bang-up job on not one but three roles (two as gender benders) in this comedy — one as the dog owner guy in the park, one as Phyllis, an uptight female friend of Kate’s, and finally as a marriage counselor of ambiguous gender.

Some of the most hilarious yet touching scenes occur between the lovesick Greg and the mischievous, over-heated, sexy Sylvia. But this is Michelle Damato’s show as Sylvia. She prances, wiggles, flirts, pouts, rolls her limpid eyes, and plays hang-doggie sadness as any good French poodle worth her Gallic salt would. Fine actress that she is, Damato plays with honesty and truth.

Gordon McConnell couldn’t be better as a man caught up in a preposterous doggie love affair. Carrie Lund can melt any heart as her ice princess fights tooth and nail for her marriage and her man. The first rate cast of four, plays this romantic comedy for laughs but does it with both honesty and poignancy.

Costume Designer Roberta Malcolm transforms Sylvia from a bedraggled, flea-ridden mutt in fur into la femme fatale Français in slinky, basic black dress… suggesting how the love-besotted Greg views his pet as time goes by. Set Designer Ray Recht and Lighting Designer Matthew McCarthy have created the perfect atmosphere, as the big city pied á terre and urban landscape come to life.

Although this script contains some racy language, the context in which it takes place makes the wordage acceptable. So just go and giggle at the wild capering of the perky pooch Sylvia as she takes Fort Myers by storm. You can start by phoning the Arcade Box Office at 332-4488 for tickets; and when you do you can bark, woofwoof or ‘chirrip’ as in tellin’ ’em Marsha sent you.