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‘Sylvia’ at NextStop Theatre Company

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Overheard at intermission of NextStop Theatre Company’s production of A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia, a guy whispers to his female companion: “I thought it was gonna be a real dog onstage.” She bites: “With voice-over maybe, you thought?” “Yeah,” he shamelessly offers.

Sherry Berg and Phil Bufithis. Photo by Rebekah Purcell VSION.

Sherry Berg and Phil Bufithis. Photo by Rebekah Purcell VSION.

Although dog-loving Director Doug Wilder and company might sprinkle this experience with a live pooch or two, he makes no bones about what it is: a frisky comedy that turns animal rescue on its head — of course, it’s the humans who need rescuing.

Married 22 years, Greg (Phil Bufithis) and Kate (Gayle Nichols-Grimes) are empty nesters with a swank Upper West Side Manhattan apartment who are ready to make their next chapter about them. Kate has spent days raising kids and nights going to school to make her mark as an English teacher and inspire inner-city adolescents. Greg is some sort of Wall Street suit set to slow down the treadmill and sample the succulent fruits of his labor.

In bounds Sylvia, a stray Greg picks up in the park who wastes no time steering their mutually exclusive partnership way out of bounds. She nuzzles in, creating a perverse love triangle and belying Greg’s predictable midlife crisis.

The work is not Shakespeare — the language, in fact, gets awfully filthy — yet it draws heavily from the bard. Greg could have started tending rose bushes or restoring antique cars … any obsessive hobby might have done the trick to make him look like a heel, but would a dog by any other name taste as sweet or promote such hilarity?

As her image of her happy home disassembles, Kate continually quotes from Shakespeare, mostly tragedies, while Greg at one point reveals Gurney’s muse, invoking a song to Silvia (sic) from The Two Gentlemen of Verona, itself a treatise on infidelity:

“Who is Silvia? What is she?
That all our swains commend her?
Holy, fair, and wise is she;
The heaven such grace did lend her
That she might admired be.”

Dogs are certainly expert at being the center of attention. Anyone who walks a dog knows they spark conversations and are great at breaking the ice between humans. How brilliant, then, to put words of wisdom in a dog’s slobbering mouth, like an “out of the mouth of babes” device.

Not since stalwart Nana in Peter Pan, who stood in for the children’s AWOL parents, and bipolar Snoopy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown — who embodies the spot where Schulz’s imagination and vain ambition collide — has an anthropomorphic onstage character proved so fetching.

One cannot lavish enough praise on Sherry Berg, a rare breed of actress whose full-bodied Sylvia is such a gift it feels like the wonder of Christmas morning and, yay, we’ve all got puppies! Wilder teases out Berg’s muted eroticism — certainly not puppy love — that merits the show’s “adults-only” tag. Whether yapping “Hey!” at Kate in mounting hysteria defining her terrier-tory or making puppy eyes at an indulgent master, Berg worms her way into your heart, leaves you panting and hands-down deserves a “Best in Show” trophy. She mixes “Joisey” street smarts and high-class French poodle into a silky-smooth Bitches Brew.

But enough canine puns. NextStop’s producers have them covered. Suffice to say, Berg’s performance is so good, she makes you want to catch it again and again for each virtuoso stroke.

High marks also go to Costume Designer Kristina Martin, who sheaths Sylvia first in a scruffy, worn, brown poncho, jeans and Uggs (not hush puppies), then bouncy, fur-lined shorts and Pebbles-style bone-shaped bow in her hair to show how well she cleans up, and finally a classy, form-fitting, let-the-sunshine-in ensemble that bespeaks the dog’s high station of authority. Greg, meanwhile, grows progressively disheveled and ends the show in a get-up similar to what Sylvia started with.

A special treat is Christopher Herring, who lends an exquisite shine to three supporting roles. First he’s fellow dog owner Tom, whom Greg meets in the park for some raw male bonding. Tom espouses self-help mumbo-jumbo, delivering in-Greg’s-face boosterism. Next up is Herring’s scene-stealing reverse pants role, as Phyllis, Kate’s recovering alcoholic confidante. It’s only after he slips on the slithering skin of a gender-confused therapist and attempts a sort of psychological exorcism that we realize Gurney’s subtext: Humans tend to overcomplicate things, don’t we? Let’s just TALK about it. Out of the mouth of dogs, maybe.

After all, it takes a dog to ground a household in routine, setting the rhythms of waking and eating, walking and relieving oneself, stripping down to basic instincts, acting on one’s hunches, if not haunches.

Bufithis’ “poor lost soul” Greg is doddering, docile, and almost Disney-esque in his defenseless domesticity. Sylvia helps restore some of his backbone, while Bufithis maintains a playful likability.’ Gayle Nichols-Grimes’ contrasts as a no-nonsense ball-buster. She declares, “The dog phase of my life is over!” Sure enough, her Kate spends the first act void of any childlike qualities, even as her career involves connecting with children. But who can resist a dog’s softening charms?

The Cast of 'Sylvia' at NextStop. Photo by Rebekah Purcell VSION.

The Cast of ‘Sylvia’ at NextStop. Photo by Rebekah Purcell VSION.

It’s against this backdrop, with the children out of the house and Kate and Greg tending to their adult matters and self-imposed pressures to get serious about their careers, that it dawns on the audience how long it’s been since we ourselves played Let’s Pretend and acted like animals. How refreshing to get silly, jump on the furniture, burst into song or howl at the moon.

Speak, Sylvia! Preach it.

“To help him of his blindness;
And, being helped, inhabits there.
Then to Silvia let us sing.”

Shakespeare said it best. But Gurney’s message of earthy pleasure is here to stay. And you don’t have to be a “dog person” to get it.

Running Time: 2 hours, plus a 20-minute intermission.

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Sylvia plays through November 16, 2014, at NextStop Theatre Company’s Industrial Strength Theatre -269 Sunset Park Drive, in Herndon, VA. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

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