Last week, Funky Little Theater Co.'s Chris Medina told a half-filled house something that was a first for me.
"Do remember it is a comedy," said Medina before A.R. Gurney's "Sylvia" began. "Just remember if things are funny, you can laugh. No one will judge you."
It was an understandable encouragement, but Medina, who directed, needn't have bothered. His "Sylvia" was probably the most effective iteration of this community theater-favorite that I've ever seen. Funny, yes, and nuanced and human and just a little poignant.
While a young director - chronologically anyway - Medina made strong casting choices here, especially in John A. Zincone (Greg) and Catherine Cotton McGuire (Kate) as the Manhattan wasps who meet their Waterloo in a stray dog wearing a tag that simply says Sylvia (the amazing Amanda Gaden). A middle-ager in crisis, Greg falls in love with the standard poodle at first lick.
And Kate? Well, she sees the dog upending the empty-nesters' new freedom and Kate's ambitious new career as a teacher - perhaps even her 22-year marriage.
Sylvia probably wouldn't see it that way and would say so. She's quite the chatterbox, in fact, fulfilling the dreams of every dog owner in the audience. ("I think you're God if you want to know," she tells Greg.) Gaden is wonderful as Sylvia, sidestepping the saccharine and gleefully embodying the electric openness of a young dog, all unrestrained physicality and unconditional love at the beginning and in Act II the confidence of a pooch who believes she's entitled to have whatever she wants.
Some productions goose the love triangle by casting a nubile young woman in the role (Sarah Jessica Parker played it in the 1995 off-Broadway premiere), but Medina takes the high road: Gaden is lovely but a grown-up, and that crass business is happily soft pedaled.
Cotton McGuire's Kate would be easy to hate (and I have in performances elsewhere). But she sands down the hard edges here and there by subtly imbuing her character with the hurt at the root of the digs ("Where's Saliva?" Kate routinely asks) and the difficult conversations. Her lifelike portrayal made this show work for me.
Zincone is just as skilled. Greg's need for something "real" in his life is palpable, as is his personal evolution - his blossoming, really - in Sylvia's company. The actor, who looks like Sting after a long holiday and no hair gel, is all in, and it was fun to watch.
Sallie Walker plays everyone else. Although the audience was hers throughout, Walker is at her comic best as Kate's socialite friend Phyllis and Tom, a dog park habitué. Walker's considerable talent - a la manic giants like Robin Williams and Martin Short - is relatively contained in these roles, allowing her to riff but keeping the characters more or less in scale with Greg and Kate.
But in Leslie, the androgynous therapist "exploring the boundaries of gender identification," director Medina lets Walker shoot to cartoonish heights. It's apparently a common choice for the role, but the XL wackiness throws the scene - and her fellow actors - wildly off balance and slows the action down.
One piece of advice: You may want to sit in the first row to be certain you'll see all the action played on the floor. My view from the second row, which was on a riser, was obscured by someone sitting in front of me. And that was a doggone shame.