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The problem with a pet

Greg’s problem is he has two competing women in his life — and one of them is a dog.

In Central Alberta Theatre’s remounted production of Sylvia, which opened on Thursday at City Centre Stage in Red Deer, the main protagonist, Greg, hits mid-life and loses all sense of perspective.

Feeling frustrated and unfulfilled with his job, Greg soon trades his troubles for the chance to cuddle with Sylvia, the stray dog he finds in the park and impulsively brings home — to his wife’s shock and dismay.

The fact that his spouse, Kate, an empty-nester career woman, does not want a dog doesn’t really register with Greg.

He eventually begins looking at Sylvia with so much puppy-eyed devotion that an alarmed Kate feels she’s losing ground. “He never looks at me the way he looks at Sylvia,” said Kate, who complains to a marriage counsellor that she can’t compete with this kind of “primeval affection.”

It won’t give anything away to say that all of the conflict in this play, written by A.R. Gurney as a Woody Allen-style comedy about analytical New Yorkers, hinges on Kate’s frustration with the untenable situation of her husband falling head-over-heels (in a purely platonic sense) for a dog.

It is, therefore, something of a dilemma that Kate, who is otherwise played convincingly and naturalistically by actor Mary Cook, didn’t get nearly frustrated or exasperated enough during the opening night performance to really ramp up the tension and humour.

This and a low energy level among cast members contributed to a flat tone in the first act. But this was remedied, somewhat, in the second half of the play, so there’s hope this promising production directed by Judith Moody will keep picking up steam as the run progresses.

Greg is portrayed as an amiable man who gradually loses sight of his priorities by Craig Scott, who shows some real emotion as discussions begin to centre on giving his dog away.

To Greg, Sylvia is much more than a pet, she is an emotional release — and the situation really becomes a love triangle, with Greg caught in the middle.

Debby Allan has many charming and comical moments in her portrayal of Sylvia, such as when the pooch slinks behind a chair after one of her ‘puddles’ is discovered on the floor, or plants her face into the crotch of Kate’s highfalutin Vassar College friend, Phyllis. (“It’s just my way of saying ‘Hi,’” Sylvia explains after being rebuked for bad behaviour.)

But Allan, who’s reprising the title role that she memorably played when CAT staged this play five years ago, portrays the labradoodle with more of a world-weary attitude this time around. While this sometimes works, it would be nice to see more of the unadulterated joy and excitement that her Sylvia embodied the last time.

After all, isn’t the point of the play that dogs appeal because they are always happy and not complicated?

Gord Phillips multi-tasks in three smaller roles and also has his comic moments — as Tom, a fellow dog owner, Kate’s posh friend Phyllis, and Leslie the sexually ambiguous marriage counsellor who also gets frustrated by Greg’s dog obsession.

But in the end, the whole play rests on the bond that forms between Greg and Sylvia. Fortunately, Scott and Allan are able to create this great chemistry through a series of scenes where the pet and owner romp together in the park and exchange pet tricks for dog biscuits.

Anyone who has ever had a pup, or bonded with one, will certainly be able to relate.

Sylvia runs to Feb. 1.

This comedy is Moody’s swan song with CAT. After directing and otherwise contributing to dozens of local theatre productions, she is moving back to her native B.C. and Surrey’s gain will mean a loss to Red Deer’s community theatre scene. Moody’s talent, enthusiasm and sense of can-do volunteerism will be missed.



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