To herald in 2017, Geva Theatre Center is throwing its audiences a bone. "Sylvia," which features a canine-centered storyline, opened on January 14; it's the second comedy in Geva's Wilson Stage season, following last fall's season opener "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." "Sylvia," penned by Buffalo-born playwright A.R. Gurney, premiered Off-Broadway in 1995 (the year the play is set), and has featured big names like Sarah Jessica Parker in the title role.
The plot follows a WASP-y upper middle class couple, Greg (John Scherer) and Kate (Dee Hoty), who recently moved to New York City from the suburbs after their last child left for college. By day, Greg works a corporate job and Kate teaches Shakespeare to inner city high school students. By night, the couple maintains social plans with other empty nesters. It seems ideal, but Greg isn't happy at work -- or really, at all. When he finds a stray dog, Sylvia (Jennifer Cody), wandering Central Park one day, he brings her home and a bond begins to form between the two. It eventually becomes so strong that it strains Greg and Kate's marriage, prompting advice from a friend, a fellow dog owner, and a therapist (all played by Hunter Foster).
Given the nature of the script (the role of Sylvia is typically portrayed by an attractive woman who actually converses with the other characters), "Sylvia" requires a certain suspension of reality and openness to metaphor.
"Sylvia" is directed by Geva Artistic Director Mark Cuddy, and feels similar to other comedies he's undertaken. Each comedic moment is played to the utmost (a fact that caused some audience members to cry with laughter).
Cody, a Henrietta native and SUNY Fredonia graduate, returns to Rochester in her fourth annual show; she also appeared in "The Odd Couple," "Women in Jeopardy," and "Monty Python's Spamalot." In many ways, the petite actor is well cast as an adorable-yet-sassy dog. Her chemistry with the other cast members -- especially Scherer -- is sweetly convincing, and her physicality as a house pet creates hilarious moments. While the entire cast holds its own, it's Cody who sets the tone of the show and keeps the frenetic pace throughout.
As Greg, Scherer portrays a thoroughly milquetoast husband who's having the oddest midlife crisis. He's nice and seems to mean well, but overall, he lacks courage to connect with his wife and projects his need for intimacy on a dog. Scherer does an expert job toeing the line between completely unlikeable and pitiable. Kate is the "cat" of the play. She's going about her own business and hisses a bit when Sylvia comes home with Greg, because she likes the rhythm of their current life. Hoty has a challenge with the role: it would be all too easy to play a nagging, workaholic wife, but she measures her emotions beautifully throughout, even seeming heroic by the end.
Hunter Foster (who audiences may remember as last year's King Arthur in "Spamalot") plays three characters throughout the course of the show: Kate's high society friend Phyllis, Greg's fellow dog park frequenter Tom, and an ambiguously gendered therapist named Leslie. The characters are appropriately stereotypical, and Foster is a delight each time he walks out on stage in a new costume.
The scenic design (primarily Greg and Kate's apartment) by Jo Winiarski feels like the setting for a mid-90's sitcom or romantic comedy, complete with plush wall-to-wall carpeting and minimalist accents. Gray is the primary set color, allowing the cast to color each scene with their bright costumes and dialogue. The costume design by Susan Branch Towne takes full advantage of the gray setting and the fantastical element of a dog who's played by a human: Sylvia's outfits feel like they're pulled from the wardrobes of tiny pageant queens.
Since its premiere in 1995, "Sylvia" has been received with mixed reviews from audiences and critics alike. The most recent (and first) Broadway production in 2015, starring Matthew Broderick, closed several weeks early due to poor tickets sales and a mediocre critical response.
While that's not likely to happen at Geva, the inclusion of "Sylvia" in the Wilson Stage lineup highlights a certain gravity missing in the theater's 2016-17 main stage season thus far; a missed opportunity for discussion-spurring works during what has been an important, historic few months.
Rather than alternating genres, Geva's Wilson Stage has featured two comedies and the annual production of "A Christmas Carol," shows poised to sell tickets. While comedy is preferable for some audience members and could even be praised as a reprieve from the stress of everyday life, the city's only regional theater has a greater responsibility to its audiences -- one that will, hopefully, be fulfilled during the second half of the season.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated to reflect the name of Geva's Wilson Stage series.