RALEIGH — Can “man's best friend” become too much of a good thing? That's the premise of A.R. Gurney's quirky comedy “Sylvia,” opening this year's Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy series.
Sylvia is a dog that Greg, a New Yorker in mid-life crisis, finds abandoned in the park. He immediately bonds with her, taking her home in hopes his wife, Kate, will let him keep her. Kate, however, sees Sylvia as a threat to the life she wants to have with Greg, now that the kids are gone. She reluctantly agrees to a trial period, but quickly finds that Greg is devoting more time to the dog and less to her.
Much of the play's humor comes from having Sylvia played in human form (no floppy ears or wagging tail here). And Sylvia talks — conversing devotedly to her master and sassily to her “enemy” Kate.
Gurney sprinkles the play with easy laughs, from Neil Simon-like punch lines to Sylvia's abundant scatological language, to an actor in a dress playing a society woman. Yet he does extract some sophisticated humor from subtler points in the battle of the sexes and the way people humanize their pets.
But Gurney wants us to sympathize with his characters as well as laugh at them. He makes parallels between Greg's relationship with Sylvia and an extramarital affair. He comments on empty-nest relationships and upper-class urban angst. Gurney also wants the play to please everyone, throwing in a Cole Porter tune sung by the cast, and supplying a rather unmotivated upbeat ending.
Actor Alan Campbell, newly installed managing director of the series, takes on a formidable challenge in his first time directing. He goes for the script's humor over its more serious implications, leaving an urge to see more depth of character, especially with this experienced cast.
Lisa Jolley is a delight as Sylvia, beautifully balancing the instinctive canine aspects with the moods and emotions her owner projects onto her. Jolley can get a laugh with a mere eye roll or head droop. Robbie Gay gets credit for not going overboard as Kate's friend Phyllis or the gender-blending marriage counselor Leslie. He's also hilarious as Tom, the advice-dispensing dog owner who befriends Greg.
Cassandra Vallery starts a little tentatively as Kate, but comes into her own as Kate begins to question Greg's intentions in alcohol-fueled tirades. Adam Twiss has fine comic timing but takes a curiously laid-back approach to Greg instead of exhibiting a more focused obsession, lessening the impact of many interactions with pet and spouse.
Still, the cast is strong enough and the humor engaging enough to fill the evening with continual giggles and guffaws, not a bad recipe for a hot summer night.