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Tucson Weekly Doggy Style

Despite A Problematic Script, Invisible Theatre Creates An Entertaining Comedy.

By Dave Irwin

OCTOBER 5, 1998:  SYLVIA, A.R. GURNEY'S update of the old "boy-and-his-dog" story, has problems. Fortunately, the Invisible Theatre production manages to overcome the author's missteps. From the moment actress Suzi List bounds on stage in the title role of the street-wise, back-talking pup, it's obvious she has the audience in the palm of her paw. List brings enough energy and character to her portrayal of a sassy pooch caught between insight and instinct that it's easy to overlook the flawed script.

Sylvia opens IT's 28th season. The production is tightly directed by IT's managing artistic director, Susan Claussen. Her fast pace, tight blocking and inventive use of IT's cozy space all contribute to the melo-comedy's success.

The play opens when Greg (Harold Dixon) brings home a stray dog, Sylvia, to the New York apartment he shares with his wife, Kate (Maedell Dixon). Greg is in mid-life crisis, trying to find himself and distraught over the notion he's reduced to selling investment derivatives. His empty-nester-with-a new-career wife has already found herself, now that their children are off to college. Greg begins a very unhealthy obsession with his new pet, culminating with losing his job and nearly losing his wife. Kate is understandably jealous and distraught at home, where her tribulations are a counterpoint to her rewarding days spent teaching Shakespeare to inner-city kids.

If Harold and Maedell Dixon didn't play this with at least some modicum of believability, it would be a shock, since in addition to being professional actors, they're real-life husband and wife.

Harold gets the juicier role, since Greg gets to have a crisis and a dog. Maedell is stuck with a role that's essentially a series of set-ups for her husband's character arc.

The characters of Greg and Kate are fundamentally flawed as written by Gurney. Greg's obsessiveness with Sylvia is never seriously questioned. Toward the end, we are expected to believe that a choice between six months paid vacation in England with his wife or six months unemployed and alone in their apartment with his dog is a tough decision. Gurney churns the owner/dog relationship long after the audience has gotten it, especially since he uses up most of his funny material early on. In turn, Kate's utter disregard for her husband's emotional morass while objecting to his dog ownership is shallow. Kate's late reversal from absolute abhorrence toward the pup throughout the play to life-affirming affection after demanding the dog's exile, makes no more sense than her hostility did.

At one point, you can almost see the author look at his watch and decide to speed things up. Suddenly, instead of acting, the couple simply tells us what's happened. Unable to emotionally resolve the audience's attitude towards his star, Gurney simply writes her out, then has the characters describe the rest of her life.

Of course, all the best lines go to Sylvia herself. List, as the self-indulgent but uncritically loving canine, is a must-see. Watching her lope across the range from purely primal to all-too human, is a delight. Claussen's directorial touches in wardrobe are inspired also, as List's outfits go from scruffy, to a poodle skirt and finally, to where Sylvia and Greg wear matching jogging suits.

Paul Vitali almost steals the show in a series of supporting roles that let him camp it up first as a guy, then as a woman, and finally as the couple's marriage counselor of indeterminate sex.

Sylvia, despite script problems, is well worth seeing for the skilled acting and incredible energy of its cast-- especially List. Miss it and you might as well beat yourself with a rolled-up newspaper.

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