Jealousy and obsession rule the roost in A.R. Gurney’s 1995 comedy Sylvia, a fascinating Manhattan love triangle between man, wife and man’s best friend delightfully presented by the Human Race Theatre Company at the Loft Theatre.
On one fateful day in the park, unhappy Greg (Jason Podplesky), struggling through a midlife crisis, finds the dog of his dreams in Sylvia (Alex Sunderhaus), an adorable mutt who loves him like no other, even proclaiming him god on multiple occasions. However, their cutesy relationship is quickly upended by the frustrations of Greg’s wife Kate (Jen Joplin), a teacher who’d rather treasure the peace and quiet that comes with being an empty nester added to the fact she can’t stand the idea of caring for another dog at such an inopportune time in her career. So, after 22 years of marriage, battle lines are drawn, leaving Greg to fight with Kate over Sylvia’s place in their lives and home as Kate seeks to fight with Sylvia over Greg’s affection, a decision that leads her to seek advice from gender-fluid therapist Leslie (versatile Rory Sheridan in one of three humorous roles).
In a hugely demanding and physical role, Sunderhaus, a Wright State University alumna hilariously seen last season at the Human Race in The House, is an absolute hoot once again. Whether scratching behind her ears, sliding across the floor, jumping on a table, sniffing furniture, rummaging through magazines, spinning in circles, rolling on the floor, or humping a leg, she epitomizes all the necessary animal characteristics with incredible exuberance and a charming twinkle in her eye. But perhaps most importantly, she grasps Sylvia’s genuine desire to simply please her owners by establishing a deep, sincere and loving connection, particularly Kate in spite of the obvious friction between them (the appealing Joplin is a wonderful foil for Sunderhaus). Throughout the show, lightheartedly directed by Marya Spring Cordes, there are many funny scenes shared between Sunderhaus and the believably infatuated and troubled Podplesky, but I believe the production’s hallmark lies in late Act 2’s beautiful, heartbreaking poignancy as a breakup becomes inevitable. All good things must come to an end, but no one said it wouldn’t sting, especially when the future involves a promise to move into a studio apartment on the Upper West Side near Central Park.
In addition, Eric Moore’s terrific revolving set, expertly lit by John Rensel, effectively captures the essence of the Big Apple from skyline to park while astutely maintaining focus on Greg and Kate’s home at all times. Jessica Pitcairn’s costumes for Sunderhaus in particular are equally noteworthy, ranging from casual to flirty with a pinch of leather-clad sexual vixen thrown in for good measure.
Shortly before Sylvia’s opening on April 26, Sunderhaus paused to reflect on the script and the complexities of her portrayal. A fan of legendary comics such as Mel Brooks, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, and Madeline Kahn as well as film classics such as Airplane! and Clue, she hopes audiences are ultimately charmed by the story and its heartwarming aims.
“Every being connects in their own way,” she said. “People and animals cross paths for certain reasons in life in order to show, teach or guide. This play is joyful, whimsical, sweet, and really tugs the heart in way that is super relatable. Whether you’re a dog person, a cat person or not even a pet person, everyone can feel what it’s like to have another being, a pet, in your life that creates certain feelings of love, protection, support, and real friendship.”
Sylvia continues through May 12 at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. Act One: 65 minutes; Act Two: 50 minutes. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings; 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday evenings; and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $37-$55 for adults; $34-$48 for seniors; and $19.50-$27 for students. Select side-area seats available for $14 and $27 at all performances. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit humanracetheatre.org. or ticketcenterstage.com. In addition, on May 7 at 5:30 p.m., the Human Race will host a “Puppies and Pints” event at the Loft Theatre in which craft beer and furry friends up for adoption will be on hand. The event is sponsored by the Humane Society of Greater Dayton and Toxic Brew Company. Patrons are also advised Sylvia is rated PG-15. Parents are strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under the age of 15.