First-World Problems

Sylvia Is Dog Shit

First-World Problems

Chris Bennion

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. recommended

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Comments (23) RSS

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Fried Worms 1
Hear hear. Spot on.

But one thing Kiley left out in my humble opinion is the sexism of the play. An older married man brings home a dog--played by a pretty young woman--who worships him and crawls around on all fours and begs to be near him and is completely submissive and semi-sexualized (there's some line in there where men at the dog park admire her, saying, "Cute butt on that one" or something along those lines) while being nearly fully dehumanized. Mediocre, pointless, and yet flagrantly sexist. Finding a way to blend these together in one script is the play's closest approximation of achievement.
Posted by Fried Worms on November 23, 2011 at 11:39 AM · Report this
To Jerry Manning's credit, much of Seattle Rep's core audience has reached the senile stage of old age and they possibly have in fact forgotten that they've seen this play 15 years ago. So it could be new to many of them even if they did see it before.
Posted by Gomez on November 23, 2011 at 11:59 AM · Report this
Fnarf 3
From the description I heard on NPR, I assumed it was an adaptation of "Alf".
Posted by Fnarf on November 23, 2011 at 11:59 AM · Report this
I just assumed that they were doing this one:…
Posted by dirge on November 23, 2011 at 2:06 PM · Report this
I saw it and the entire time wished I was watching Albee's The Goat, or Who is Sylvia.
Posted by milleribsen on November 23, 2011 at 3:33 PM · Report this
Geni 6
I've been in a production of it, and I have to say I agree with all of it. Including the part about how audiences love it. @1 is absolutely correct - the sexism in it isn't even remotely disguised. It kind of made me cringe. The only thing that made our production of it work at all is that the actress playing Sylvia in ours was just about the cutest little puppywuppydog you could ever hope to see. But I don't much like the play. The character of the wife is such a shrieking harridan that we had kids in our audience ask the parents why the husband didn't just get rid of the wife and keep the dog. I agreed with them (and I was playing the wife).
Posted by Geni on November 23, 2011 at 5:29 PM · Report this
A.R Gurney is such a ponce.
Posted by Chili on November 24, 2011 at 12:01 AM · Report this
@1, I had such a hard time with the sexism I nearly left at intermission. The conversation on the way home was along the lines of: if this is truly an "audience favorite" then maybe we shouldn't get season tickets to the rep next year, because what if we become the sort of people who think of this play as a favorite? Ugh.
I thought the airport musical number was particularly terrible, and dated in a dumb way. Maybe in another decade, sitting with someone who's waiting for their flight will be cutely retro, but right now it's just silly.
Posted by alight on November 25, 2011 at 3:45 PM · Report this
breakdown 9
Script aside, everything about the production was top notch.

Using the dog as a device to write about "the affair" was a decent idea, but that device wasn't used to present anything new or interesting about the subject. The actors did a great job but the characters are all so empty-headed, it really was kind of painful at times.
Posted by breakdown on November 25, 2011 at 4:42 PM · Report this
rebeccax 10
Sylvia is such a fucked-up piece of sexist shit. The first line of the show is Sylvia telling her owner that she loves him even when he's hitting her. Gah! I had to work on a production in college for a class. It was so God-awful.
Posted by rebeccax on November 25, 2011 at 5:49 PM · Report this
Spot on and super well-written. Way to go Kiley!
Posted by Greasy Sae on November 26, 2011 at 10:39 AM · Report this
what are you a bunch of greener-whiners? not very production is intended to be earth-shattering. it's a comedy, not a drama. i do agree that some characters were a bit drab, but the proof is in the pudding, kids.

also, to ridicule people who laugh at four letter words and shallow jokes is, well, kind of ironic of you, don't' you think?
Posted by Macros on November 26, 2011 at 1:27 PM · Report this
@12 The proof is in what pudding? The fact that they mounted a show because it was popular in the past does not prove that it is worthwhile in the present. That said, I do like pudding. Pretty ironic of me, huh?
Posted by 07wsf on November 27, 2011 at 7:52 PM · Report this
Sea Otter 14
Kinda wish you'd spent less space emphasizing what a piece of shit this play is, and more space giving concrete examples to illustrate your point. Not that I don't believe you when you say it's a piece of shit. I believe it.
Posted by Sea Otter on November 27, 2011 at 7:58 PM · Report this
Wow, I can't believe I'm saying this, but I agree with Brendan. What a waste of excellent talent! Alban Dennis -- though talented -- should have been cast in something else. The husband and wife should have had some depth to their relationship, at least some better sense of shared history. R. Hamilton Wright should have found some of the f*cking guts of the play.
Posted by Unhappy with this production on November 27, 2011 at 10:01 PM · Report this
Yes the play is crap, but I'd call the director out as crap too. It was as if the only note he'd given the cast was to run around and cadge as many laughs as they could. It was a really long evening.
Posted by Gurney-hater on November 27, 2011 at 11:07 PM · Report this
balderdash 17
I bet it's no better at the Rep than it was when my high school company put it on.

And it was fucking terrible, I tell you what.
Posted by balderdash on November 28, 2011 at 12:30 AM · Report this
Sea Otter 18
one-­dimensional, upper-middle-class halfwits wring their hands over the basic facts of life

A wonderful turn of phrase by the way. I'll remember that one.
Posted by Sea Otter on November 29, 2011 at 6:54 AM · Report this
I used to live in Seattle and went to a a lot plays at these 3 venues. I was in my late twenties. Everyone else was 65+. Same with the symphony.
Posted by donna_romper on November 29, 2011 at 3:50 PM · Report this
Agree completely with the review. We just walked out of this horrible play at intermission. The Rep's season has been a complete miss this year. We've been subscribers for over a decade, but this piece of crap may be the last straw.
Posted by HomeyInSeattle on December 1, 2011 at 9:00 PM · Report this
Well, this is a better play than what we saw. And Hamilton Wright is a far better actor IN the play (as he did years ago at this same theater) than he is a DIRECTOR of the play now. He misses so much in this light comedy of A.R. Gurney and the liberties he has taken now with the play hurt its meaning. First, his casting choices are odd: Sylvia is to be a subtle, smallish, dog. The first production staged at the Rep had an actress who did not play the role for "camp" in an over-the-top way as the current actress does. And the physical demands and intellgence for the role are real: the actress (Sarah Jessica Parker debuted the role on Broadway by the way) is to be clever and study the animating features that help us really see this actress as dog, not human-playing-dog. This is missed entirely in Wright's directing. The anthropomorphizing effort is sorely missed, the subtleties lost. In addition, the actress playing Kate, the wife, is meek in the first act and barely audible. In the casting choice here, Wright misses entirely the arch and sharp quality of Kate, choosing an actress who does not really inhabit the role and instead, plays up much too large her fatigue but not her wit and intelligence. Further, he drunken scene with her friend comes out of nowhere--we've not been introduced to her energy at all in the first portion of the play. The A.R. Gurey intention is to feature a much stronger woman in the role than how this is played in the current production. Most disappointingly, the most beautiful part of the play--the monologue about love as sharing--in Act 2 is to be delivered by the HUSBAND, not the dog. This change makes this soliloquy entirely lost for the audience. Thus, the whole experience becomes farce without the profound sweetness and optimism that A.R. Gurney intended. It is just a poorly directed play. Wright played the husband years ago and had better direction then than he remembered how to extend to his cast now. I regret that Seattle's audiences did not see a first-rate production here.

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Posted by Robin on December 3, 2011 at 7:00 AM · Report this
The whole time I was watching, I wondered why the wife didn't leave her pathetic loser of a husband! Let him keep the stupid dog, go to England!!!! Also, the three characters played by Darragh Kennan seemed to, on various levels, see the truth in the situation...but his/her gender ambiguity in all three roles seemed to be aimed at "comedy", and therefore undermined everything she/he said. Unimpressed. Wanted to kill myself during this show. The Rep can do better, and usually does...but I guess this is just their money-maker...which is tragic. I must go cry.
Posted by hedonist on December 7, 2011 at 12:26 PM · Report this
I love this review and I completely agree. Thank you for your brave words, Mr. Kiley, and for prompting some discussion.

Keep fighting the good fight!
Posted by ~ Slick on December 15, 2011 at 8:03 PM · Report this

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