If a man's best friend is his dog, where does that leave his wife?
That's one of the questions raised by "Sylvia," a big-hearted, crowd-pleasing comedy now being staged at the George Street Playhouse on Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick.
Written by A.R. Gurney, "Sylvia" humorously looks at the impact that one dog (the title character, played by "Saturday Night Live" alumn Rachel Dratch) has on the marriage of Greg and Kate, a pair of Manhattan empty-nesters (played by real-life spouses Boyd Gaines and Kathleen McNenny). Rounding out the cast is auxiliary player Stephen DeRosa, who crosses age and gender barriers to play a handful of supporting characters throughout the show.
In advance of "Sylvia"'s opening, director and George Street Playhouse artistic director David Saint made it clear that the production would sink or swim depending on who took on the title role: "You need an inspired comedienne to do the play, otherwise it's like doing 'Hamlet' without a Hamlet or 'Gypsy' without a Rose, there's no point in doing it,'' Saint said in a recent interview.
Fortunately, he and the George Street Playhouse scored a casting coup when Dratch came on board. Filled with boundless energy, enthusiasm and affection, Dratch delivers a totally winning performance in "Sylvia," making it easy to see why the character of Greg, a Manhattanite in the midst of a mid-life crisis, would fall in love with her -- it would be difficult for any audience not to feel the same way.
While it could be easy to treat the character of Sylvia as a metaphor of an aging husband's new young marriage-wrecking girlfriend, Dratch smartly plays her first and foremost as a dog, complete with convincing body language and boundless affection.
If there is a fault with Dratch's performance, it's simply that she is so energetic and attention-grabbing that in the play's early going it's difficult not to pay attention to her while other on-stage characters are engaging in dialogue.
Gaines, a four-time Tony winner, and McNenny, who previously appeared in the George Street Playhouse's production of "Sight Unseen," both deliver in their roles, and their performances particularly shine as the insights into their characters deepen towards the end of the first act.
The four-person show works perfectly for the intimate setting at George Streeet, with James Youmans' minimalist but effective set design seamlessly transitioning from Greg and Kate's apartment to Central Park to a therapist's office and beyond.
And while "Sylvia" has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, as evidenced by an audience's enthusiastic reaction at a recent performance, it also has a solid emotional core which justifies its sentimental, tear-jerking ending.
Simply put, for comedy lovers, theater lovers and dog lovers alike, "Sylvia" is a treat.