After just about a year of seeing a play a week for this column, I'm starting to catch some of the same fabulous performers over and over again, working in different companies for different directors, and realize why they get cast a lot. Choosing the cast for a play is scary, but if you have, for example, Randy Hesson's resume in front of you, all you have to do is put him in the show and he will rock you. Like a hurricane, only more pleasantly.
Hesson is currently playing Greg, the dog owner, in Sylvia for Tempe Little Theatre. I didn't even realize, until I was reading the program at intermission, that he's the same actor who made me want to have his babies when he played The Old Actor in The Fantasticks. It's not just that he's not made up to look 2,000 years old here; he's completely different and still perfect for his part. We call that having range.
Hesson's not the only star in this constellation, though. Janis Webb's ensemble is not merely solid; they're like the chocolate chunks and nuts and M&Ms and coconut (run with me, here, and pretend you like all those things) in a cookie: all yummy, all important, all super on their own but even better as a whole.
Sylvia is, on the surface, a play about a man who adopts a dog, and the dog, Sylvia, is played by a human being (in this case, the sweet, perky, adorable Emily Rubin, who's able to convince us that it might be annoying for her to jump all over us, nose our crotch, or hump our leg. Acting! Genius!).
We can hear what Sylvia is saying and thinking; she has dialogue, in regular English sentences. The humans on stage respond to her as though they can hear it, too, but she's not a talking dog. And she's dressed in clothes, not a dog costume. This is all hard to explain, but easy to follow and necessary for the show to work. A. R. Gurney is a talented, experienced, successful playwright -- who's beloved by theaters for, among other things, writing sentimental but amusing plays with manageably small casts. (The best known are probably Love Letters and The Dining Room.)
The adult content we're warned about in Sylvia consists of profanity (largely on Sylvia's part) and the issues that come up in the 22-year-old marriage of Greg and Kate (Shari Watts), who believes that her dog-tolerating years are behind her and that Greg is going middle-aged crazy. Watts takes a character who could easily be played as a cold, unfeeling bitch (no pun intended) and rounds her out to believable normal womanhood. The suspense of Sylvia comes from us wanting a happy ending for everybody, and we want it because we like Kate and can see where she's coming from.
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Sylvia is written with three more parts -- supporting roles -- and they were originally all played by one man. Not every theater winds up having the acting resources at hand to do the show this way, but TLT has no problem because they have Timothy Pittman. Technically -- I mean pragmatic, grunt-worky, craft-wise -- he and Rubin have the heavy lifting: She meets the considerable physical demands of playing a dog, and he plays three characters who couldn't be much more different and makes them distinct individuals.
Joe Navan's costumes and hairstyles (especially his concepts for Sylvia, who, yes, has costume changes) are stunning and appropriate and wonderful. Of course a poodle would wear a skirt with an appliqué of a person on a leash -- and maybe Navan's not the first designer to think of it -- but I couldn't catch my breath for several minutes after first seeing it.
This is a great, base-covering, piston-firing production all around. Although it has wise and true things to say about love and relationships, it's almost relentlessly funny as hell, too. So, so funny, with the great timing and smart playing and hysterical lines and all that. And then touching. So the tears will get you at one end of the spectrum or the other, if not both.