Gone to the Dogs: Sylvia at Players by the Sea

Sylvia, Players by the Sea Theatre, Jacksonville Beach, Florida

Players by the Sea has gone to the dogs. The most recent offering about a man and his canine best friend explores what happens when the relationship becomes a substitute for human love and connection. Sylvia written by A.R. Gurney, points to a deep break from reality and a hilarious need for personal reevaluation while also revealing the strength and resilience of love.

Directed by Ramona Ramdeen and Amy Hancock, Sylvia opened last week, introducing took the retired Greyhound racers Sonny and Bart to a sold-out crowd prior to curtain. The pups appeared as ambassadors for the Greyhounds as Pets rescue group, with whom PBTS has partnered to encourage patrons to donate or adopt one of the estimated 300 racers placed in new homes each year.

“If you’re interested in having the world’s fastest canine as a pet, go to greyhoundpetsjax.org,” says a representative from the local chapter of the organization.

Sylvia, Players by the Sea Theatre, Jacksonville Beach, Florida

In Sylvia, Greg, played by Blake Michael Osner, becomes fast friends with a stray dog he finds wandering through Central Park. He is a middle-aged financier who is disillusioned with the direction his career is taking and his longing for something “real” is quelled when he finds Sylvia. He brings her home to his upper crust apartment in the city where Sylvia makes herself at home on the couch, on the rug and in between Greg and his wife of 22 years, Kate.

The platonic love affair between Greg and Sylvia blossomed from the second they laid eyes on each other. “I think you’re God,” Sylvia says to Greg as soon as she walked in the door. “I felt some immediate connection. Didn’t you?” “I did, actually,” he replies.

Sylvia, Players by the Sea Theatre, Jacksonville Beach, Florida

Kate, played by Kelly Stam, is blossoming in academia and would rather spend her days as an empty nester planning how to introduce Shakespeare into the middle school curriculum over fighting to keep her best dress shoes from becoming Sylvia’s chew toy. Her frustration is as evident as dog hair on the couch.

Sylvia is a drooling, shedding metaphor for the disconnect that occurs between couples at a certain stage. With the kids out of the house, the marriage slips into monotony until one day, you don’t recognize one another. Kate tries to keep Greg on a tight leash but despite her best efforts, he favors long walks in the park with Sylvia over a full work day.

Sylvia, Players by the Sea Theatre, Jacksonville Beach, Florida

Most of the play’s most memorable scenes revolve around PBTS newcomer Katie Johnston’s performance as the cheeky canine. Johnston delivers a thoughtful, convincing and hysterical portrayal of a pup bent on proving her devotion to Greg despite Kate’s attempts to remain the number one woman in his life. Johnston’s canine mannerisms are masterful, from sniffing out her new surroundings and relieving herself on the living room rug to her love of her red rubber ball and vile hatred of cats. Johnston’s Sylvia transforms from scruffy stray to pampered princess in a series of outfits with her hair in ponytails as ears.

As Kate’s frustration grows, she turns to her snooty friend Phyllis for advice but Phyllis, played by Amy Tillotson, has a husband with his own peculiar habits involving the family goldfish. Eventually, Kate puts her foot down and demands that Greg seek counseling.

Sylvia, Players by the Sea Theatre, Jacksonville Beach, Florida

Chelsea Black serves up her share of laughs in dual roles. She plays an overzealous dog owner named Tom whom Greg meets in the dog park. Tom, who’s dog Bruiser quickly becomes a primal source of affection for Sylvia, always has an explanation for Greg’s behavior, thanks to a seemingly endless library of reference material on various subjects. Black also plays Leslie, a gender fluid therapist driven to the drink of madness by Greg’s tunnel vision for Sylvia.

The production has some salty language and though they are offstage, a romp through the local dog park turns steamy when Sylvia goes into heat. The result is a delightfully funny sequence involving Johnston returning home from the vet after being spayed in a “cone of shame.” Sylvia sneaks into your heart like a dog slinking across the carpet just to be nearer to you – or get on the couch.

Sylvia, Players by the Sea Theatre, Jacksonville Beach, Florida

Sylvia runs through Jan. 27 on the studio stage at Players by the Sea in Jacksonville Beach (www.playersbythesea.org).

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