Sylvia Is Dog Shit
Over the years as a theater critic, I have seen lots of so-called offensive things onstage—anal penetration with 10-foot dildos and hunting rifles, blood and snot and other bodily effluvia, people being tortured (cutting themselves, getting drowned, sitting naked and shivering on blocks of ice) in the name of a good show. But the most genuinely offensive things I have ever seen happened on the stages of Seattle's big houses: Intiman, ACT, and the Seattle Rep.
These are shows with competent acting, direction, and design, but intelligence-insulting scripts—by playwrights such as Richard Dresser and Yasmina Reza—in which one-dimensional, upper-middle-class halfwits wring their hands over the basic facts of life and find a tempest in every teapot. These plays are glorifications of mediocrity—they take on mediocre subject matter in a mediocre way.
Sylvia, a 1995 script by A. R. Gurney (its New York premiere starred Sarah Jessica Parker—fucking figures), is the latest in the litany. The plot: Empty-nester husband finds dog and brings her home. Husband adores her. Wife is jealous. Dog represents stuff. Anemic emotional push-and-pull. Learning and growing.
A person can write rewarding plays about well-fed people fretting over first-world problems that are rich, funny, and peel scabs off the human soul. Chekhov is an old example. Edward Albee is a more recent example. The Method Gun by the Rude Mechanicals (about silly, angst-ridden actors in New York) is a new one. Sylvia is not.
It's not that I'm an indignant radical who clutches his déclassé pearls in horror at the faintest whiff of bourgeois bullshit—I like my champagne and oysters as much as the next enemy of the people. It's that these kinds of plays cheapen our humanity and narrow our moral, intellectual, and artistic bandwidth with their superficiality and pettiness.
So why is the Rep remounting this tepid puff of air? (They first did it in 1996.) According to program notes by artistic director Jerry Manning, the audience likes it. They like the dullness of the drama. They titter at the comic impact of someone saying the occasional "fuck" onstage. They find the anthropomorphism of the dog, Sylvia, who worships her new master, droll:
Sylvia: I think you're God.
Greg: Stay, Sylvia. Stay. And sit.
Sylvia: I want to sit near you.
Greg: Well, all right.
Sylvia: Nearer, my God, to Thee.
Greg: Okay. As long as you sit.
That is—I'm not kidding—one of the funnier, more dynamic passages in the script. One can only interpret an adoration for Sylvia as an indictment of a person's intelligence. And an indictment of the Rep for cultivating an audience of influential dullards.
No offense to director R. Hamilton Wright, designer Carey Wong, or actors Linda K. Morris, Alban Dennis, Mari Nelson, or Darragh Kennan. You all tried your best to make this cesspool smell pretty. A for effort.