Canine chronicle

RLT’s Sylvia is amusing, but the title character needs some improvement

Rated 3.0

My dog’s got a great personality.

When I come home from work, she whines excitedly at the back door until I let her in, and then races around the apartment like a psycho with a delirious grin on her face. When she’s bored or annoyed, she flops down on the couch dramatically and lets out a long, loud sigh that could put any teenage girl to shame. I’m sure all dog lovers can relate.

Unfortunately, this kind of dynamic personality is rarely expressed in Reno Little Theater’s production of A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia. The title character is a talking dog with an attitude, played by RLT newcomer Rochelle Mezzano. While Gurney’s dialogue is wonderful, and the overall production is entertaining, Mezzano’s monotone delivery and stiffness on stage take a lot of the fun out of a fantastic concept.

The plot is fairly simple. Greg (Scott Van Tuyl) has recently left the suburbs for a Manhattan apartment and is approaching the beginning of a mid-life crisis. His wife, Kate (Melanie Collup), has rededicated herself to her career now that the kids are in college, and as far as she’s concerned, her dog-owning days are over. Greg finds Sylvia in Central Park, and the argument over whether to keep the dog threatens to end their 22-year marriage.

Underlying the dispute over Sylvia is that Greg, frustrated with his job, feels the need to reconnect with nature and “the real world.” Meanwhile, Kate’s lofty goal of teaching Shakespeare to inner-city kids is not compatible with picking up dog poo. These facts are important to the characters’ motivations, but it’s much more fun to watch Sylvia’s reactions to the world around her than to listen to Greg and Kate whining.

Therefore, what’s really important is that the actress playing Sylvia totally embodies the personality of a dog, down to the butt-wagging, the ear-scratching and, yes, even the crotch-sniffing. In other words, Sylvia should be stealing the show every chance she gets.

But Mezzano rarely displayed doggy behavior, and when she did, it was obviously scripted. When she didn’t have a line, she just stood there, a sure sign of inexperience. To be fair, opening-night jitters may have added to the stiffness of her performance, something which may alleviate a bit toward the end of the two-week run.

Unfortunately, a problem that will probably not be alleviated is the poor costume choices made for Mezzano’s character. How, exactly, is an actress supposed to realistically portray a dog in a short dress and high heels? Sure, Sylvia is supposed to look stunning after a visit to the dog groomer, but why not do what a real groomer would do, and just put a couple of fancy bows in her hair?

As for the rest of the cast, Van Tuyl does a fine job as Greg, and his extensive acting experience is evident. Beth Petersen also did a pretty good job in the dual roles of Phyllis, the socialite, and Leslie, the androgynous psychiatrist.

Collup’s portrayal of Kate only inspired one serious complaint, from a scene in which Kate seems perfectly sober and coherent, and then is suddenly stumbling, drunk and giggling. The transition between these two states should be much smoother.

Brian Bass was great as Tom, a dog owner Greg meets in the park. His New York accent is terrific, and he seems perfectly at home on stage, despite the fact that this is his first acting experience.

Another newcomer, Jeff Galli, is slated to take over the role of Tom for the play’s second weekend, Feb. 23-25.