Training Humans

Dog obedience classes have basic rules. Sylvia shows why humans ought to follow them

You've got the cutest little Labradoodle. You just love that dog. Sometimes, with her tail wagging and her big eyes following your every move, you just wish you could talk to her.

What if you could? (You might be surprised by what she thinks of cats.)

Sylvia — a play about a man, his wife and his dog — just might be the wish-fulfillment romantic comedy you’ve been waiting for. Because in A.R. Gurney’s comedy, the dog is played by a woman. And she lets Greg and Kate know exactly what she thinks of them.

What Sylvia (played by Beth Carey) lets Greg and Kate (Bill Forant and Anne Mitchell) know is that there’s a lot of stuff that humans and dogs can learn from one another.

Show your affections. Kate doesn’t want a dog. The kids are grown, she and Greg have moved to a Manhattan apartment, she has a new career. But the moment Sylvia meets Kate, she immediately says, “Hi. I like you. I think I like you.” (Just like Dug, the talking dog in Up.) Dogs are upfront with their affections.

Wag more, bark less.

Greg’s tired of his financial job. He’s tired of his boss’s demands and “the bustle of the daytime world.” He wants a new challenge. He wants to feel more connected — to other people, to the natural world. As Carey says, “Sylvia helps Greg to be more real, and not work at a job that you hate, and get a job that’s in tune with your life, and be yourself — your real self — with your spouse.”

Dogs are smarter than you think. Director Brooke Kiener emphasizes that while Carey’s Sylvia “still scratches her fleas, fetches a ball, and rolls over for a belly scratch,” her characterization won’t be doggy-excessive. There’s a lot of “dignity and wisdom” in Sylvia, Kiener says, which “is better served by a performance that appears more human than canine.”

Play nicely. Sylvia, being half-poodle, likes getting all gussied up. She’ll be sweet and loving until she spies a cat. (Usually, at that point, some F- bombs are launched. She really, really doesn’t like cats.)

Follow your heart. Greg comes to realize how often Sylvia triggers some kind of instinct in him: how to slow down and enjoy life, how to assert himself in front of his boss.

Dogs don’t consult with others before making a decision; they don’t second-guess themselves. No sniffing crotches. This should go without saying.

Stay off the couch. Kate insists on this; Sylvia flagrantly disregards it. It’s a real bone of contention (humor!) between them.

Remain focused. Carey — who studied her own dog while preparing to play Sylvia — has learned that “dogs really have just one focus, as opposed to trying always to multi-task and letting your attention be divided.”

Be spontaneous. Mitchell says that Sylvia teaches her own character, Kate, that love is about acceptance and sharing — “and she gives Kate a bit of levity. Because Kate is the kind of woman who says, ‘This is what my life will be like. That’s not my vision, that’s not part of my plan.’ But sometimes the little surprises are the best part.”

Dogs surprise us all the time — with their tricks and their playfulness. And when we come home, there they are, waiting patiently by the door, wagging their tails.

Full of rage for those freakin’ cats.

Sylvia will lick your face at the Civic’s Studio Theater, Howard St. and Dean Ave., from Jan. 29-Feb. 21, on Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 pm. (No show on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 7.) Tickets: $16; $8, students. Visit or call 325-2507.

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.