Play barks up the right tree

Yes, a dog is a man's best friend, and happiness is a warm puppy.

But even if we stipulate the truths of these odes to canines, there's this fellow named Greg who has gone overboard in bonding with his dog, Sylvia.


In what his wife, Kate, a junior high school English teacher, calls a "male menopausal moment," Greg has allowed a stray dog to become the companion of his life, a partner who has supplanted his colleagues in the workplace and even poor, dear, Shakespeare-spouting Kate.

Not surprisingly, this is one wife with a bone to pick, not only with her husband but also with the creature whose cold nose and warm heart threaten the foundation of her marriage.


This is the conflict at the heart of Sylvia, the A.R. Gurney play that opened over the weekend at Colonial Players of Annapolis, where it will be presented at the company's intimate theater-in-the-round off State Circle through Feb. 7.

Despite the odd premise and the hilarity of a high-powered two-legged actress playing four-legged Sylvia, Gurney's play is anything but a farce. Each character (the dog included) quickly becomes someone to care about.

We all need connection in our lives, and midlife has been known to induce more than its share of nonconnective panic. On some level, then, Greg is after what all of us are after. He doesn't take up with a younger woman, turn to drink or squander the retirement fund on toys designed to recapture his youth. He merely forges an intimate emotional connection with his dog.

And what a dog she is, especially when played by CeCe Newbrough, who turns this appearance on the Colonial stage into a memorable artistic event.

Sylvia delivers her lines in human-speak, but the script has her running a gamut of canine capers. Newbrough has a field day preening, barking, stretching, wagging her tail, spewing venomous profanity at cats and, most hilarious, sniffing the occasional bystander.

I suppose prim and proper theatergoers should be warned that this dog has quite a mouth on her. But profanity and all, Newbrough had Friday's opening night audience in the palm of her paws, howling uproariously every step of the way.

Sylvia also marks the Colonial debut of Vinny Ferrelli as Greg. In his hands, the character is calm, sympathetic, well-spoken and not as crazy as you might think for a middle-aged man pushing his marriage to the brink over a female who drinks from the toilet. It's a likable performance.

Nancy Fulton is delightfully understated as the suffering wife. The histrionics are few, which makes her all the more touching when the vulnerabilities surface and the ultimatums are lain down.


Sharing the pooch's flair for excess is Richard McGraw, who is hilarious in multiple roles as a testosterone-ridden dog owner, Kate's booze-nipping lady friend and an androgynous psychotherapist.

Pacing, characterization and lines were expertly drawn on opening night, so the sky's the limit for the rest of the run. For things to be this good this early, everyone, including director Mary James, must have worked like a dog.

A.R. Gurney's Sylvia continues Thursdays through Sundays at Colonial Players, 108 East St. in Annapolis, through Feb. 7. Tickets: 410-268-7373.