Arts & Events

Theater Review: Everybody Loves a Good Dog Story

By John A. McMullen, II
Tuesday May 25, 2010 - 05:34:00 PM
Analisa Svehaug, in the title role of stray-dog Sylvia, cowers at the growl of her master’s jealous wife, played by Leontyne Mbele-Mbong.
Analisa Svehaug, in the title role of stray-dog Sylvia, cowers at the growl of her master’s jealous wife, played by Leontyne Mbele-Mbong.

It’s a simple tale with a poignant, comedic story line (just like a dog!): NYC middle-aged, upper-middle-class, work-disgruntled shlub meets stray dog in the park and brings her home.Wife—who is filling her empty nest with teaching Shakespeare to inner-city children and relishing her freedom—does not like this mutt, and, not without reason, views her as a rival for her husband’s affections. 

A.R. “Pete” Gurney is a master playwright (The Dining Room, Love Letters, The Cocktail Hour) who writes about Northeastern, urban WASPS. 

Pete Gurney’s characters in this play are like those upper-middle-class Upper-West-Siders we know from New Yorker cartoons.His SYLVIA, now playing at Alameda’s Altarena Playhouse, was a hit in the mid-nineties that brought Sarah Jessica Parker to Broadway fame in the title role. 

In a few short moments, Gurney makes us believe in a talking dog in Manhattan.Of course, the underbelly of the play is the “anthropomorphizing”— in this instance, attributing human characteristics to a dog and projecting their thoughts and feelings onto her. 

Now, the thing about NYC is that every little thing is a major big deal.And they talk really fast, and overtop of one another.And that’s funny. Think Seinfeld.Think Neil Simon.There’s a reason that not a lot of comedies are set in Omaha. 

Altarena’s attempt at Gurney needs an infusion of that presto con vivo tempo and the sleeve-displayed neuroses we associate with The-City-So-Nice-They-Had-To-Name-It-Twice.Under Greg Kahane’s direction, this show, which usually runs two hours with intermission, ran about 2:25; it would be more engaging—and funnier— if the pace were hastened, and the Big City angst, wit, and ennui were palpably front and center. 

The audience of 100 on a Friday evening (always a difficult crowd, tired from the work-week) enjoyed it the way a community theatre audience lends support, chortling and tittering and looking for a place to laugh and appreciate, and applauding each scene in the black-outs between. Probably the clever writing itself would bring forth that reaction in a cold-read.But everyone was wide awake and happy, and all returned from intermission, which is always a good sign, particularly on a Friday night. 

Luckily, Analisa Svehaug plays the pooch, Sylvia.She is reminiscent of a young Annette Bening, has excellent comedic sensibilities, knows when to seduce, when to be coy, and when to lick her master’s face. This approach works well to keep her master Greg on the string with her push-me-pull-you temperament (who is really holding that leash?). 

Playing a dog is tricky.Many of us live with dogs, most of us have had a dog, some of us play puppy with our sweeties, and—except for unreconstructed cat people who generally go only to Noel Coward plays—most of us have a keen idea about what constitutes proper canine impersonation.For the first half of the first act, I was not sold on Ms. Svehaug’s channeling dog-ness.Then, on a walk in the park, she sees a cat and all hell breaks loose.After that, she convinced me.Her performance is magnetic, and a good reason to go. 

We love anybody who rescues a dog.But Greg’s (Christopher Ciabattoni) needs and despair are not committed enough for our hearts to fully go out to him.Nor do we care sufficiently for his wife, Kate (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong).I saw the interracial marriage as brilliant casting by showing the couple's sophistication.But recognizing that the actress has the tough task of gaining sympathy as a dog-hater can’t explain away my criticism.It’s that she reacts with flat-line annoyance rather than the duel-to-the-death fervor expected when you witness your husband abandoning you for a furry subspecies. To care for these two, I needed more passion, more bark, more bite. 

Jamie Olsen plays triple parts, always a challenge, and always a laugh-getting stratagem that Gurney often uses.Mr. Olsen plays Tom, the regular-guy-dog-owner in the dog park (which could use a NYC dialect for spice); then Kate’s well-connected friend Phyllis from Vassar with a Julia Child-like cracking soprano; he saves the best for last with is his flamboyant, over-the-top, androgynous, new-agey therapist Leslie whose drastic recommendations left the audience genuinely laughing out loud. 

Darrell Burson hand-painted vista of high-rises through arched windows quickly sets us in their tax-bracket and urban milieu. Their condo is very beige with white furniture.The floor, though, is scratched-up faux hardwood.I expected matching white or beige carpeting, which would have been an immediate and visual no-dog argument and raised the stakes. 

Gurney’s work keenly derives from such traditional dog sentiment as: “The dog is the only animal that has seen his god” (anon.); novelist Ben William’s quip, “There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face”; and “Dogs' lives are too short—their only fault, really” (A. S. Turnbull).And everybody loves a good dog story. 

SYLVIA plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sunday Matinees at 2 pm, through June 13, at Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High Street (take High St. Exit off 880), Alameda, CA.  

Tickets/info: (510) 523-1553 or 

Written by A. R. Gurney, directed by Greg Kahane, set design and painting by Darrell Burson, costumes by Patrick O. Sanchez, prop management by Sydney Michaels, and stage management by Vadette Goulet. Frederick L. Chacon, artistic director. 


WITH: Christopher Ciabattoni (Greg), Leontyne Mbele-Mbong (Kate), Jamie Olsen (Tom/Phyllis/Leslie), and Analisa Svehaug (Sylvia).