By MIKE DUNHAM
A.R. Gurney's "Sylvia," perhaps the most widely-loved show to come off Broadway since "The Sound of Music," isn't really about dogs, dog-lovers or dog-lover-lovers, even though those three characters are the core of the play. It's about how people respond when confronted by the unexpected. New Yorker Greg, in the throes of midlife blahs, adopts a rowdy mutt - Sylvia - or maybe she adopts him after encountering him at the park. Greg's wife, Kate, struggling to advance her career, is not warm to the idea of keeping a big dog in a city apartment but, more critically, senses that Sylvia fills a need in Greg that she cannot, thereby tossing her life into crisis.
But the drama is presented as comedy, and the audience laughed readily and repeatedly Friday night at Cyrano's. Gurney's lines remain uproarious, particularly when delivered as dialogue between man and dog.
Teresa Pond's direction keeps the action sparkling, but the production seems less heartfelt and spontaneous than the original Cyrano's staging of 11 years ago. If could be that Pond did not have the benefit of the talent available to Bostin Christopher in 1997.
Memory can be faulty, and the newness of the play doubtlessly brought its own excitement back in the day. But Christopher's key trio of David Hayes, Annie Stokes and an exquisitely energetic Shanwne Albright in the title role were described in a Daily News review at the time as "one of the most effective ensembles seen in Anchorage in a long while" - before or since I might add. The playwright, who expressed reservations when told he would see his play at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez later that year wound up praising this cast as equal to any he'd seen in the parts.
Angela Vice's Sylvia is physically convincing and attitudinally on target, but she doesn't have the dogly faces with which Albright sold the role. Ed Bourgeois likewise carries the part of Greg correctly, but he's not the mensch, the everyman, that we recall Haynes projecting. Part of the problem may be that he plays the character with enough of a beard that his recognizable facial expressions are limited to movements of his eyebrows.
The stiffness of this pair - maybe due to opening night tensions, though I think they're all veterans - is shared by the Kate, Julia Cossman, in whom one finds little softness, an attribute Stokes discovered in the script and employed to turn out a sympathetic character that infused the whole entertainment with a believability that was, in retrospect, astonishing, especially considering that it's about a talking dog.
What the current three have that the original trio lacked is good singing voices, crucial in a key first act scene when they sing "Everytime We Say Goodbye." Only Stokes could hit a pitch in 1997; the other voices were notable for their silliness more than their musicality.
The fourth actor, Mark Robokoff, plays three incidental roles with aplomb. His take on Tom, a fellow dog owner, is strikingly different than Peter Ruocco's version 11 years ago, more masculine, weightier. In the drag role of Kate's friend, I seem to recall Ruocco as smoother and funnier. But Robokoff's over-the-top new-age therapist is a fresh surprise.
It's hard not to compare the two productions to the disadvantage of the present show. But those who haven't yet seen this modern fable - and most who have - will nonetheless revel in the story, the jokes, the antics and the whole idea of human/animal relationships. It's impossible not to see this play and think of one or more dogs one has known; Gurney's aim was dead on when he came up with his subject. The first night sold out and, in a dog-crazy town like Anchorage, there's no reason why the rest of the run won't, too.
"Sylvia" will be presented at 7 p.m. Thurs. - Sat. and 3 p.m. Sun. at Cyrano's Off Center Playhouse, 413 D. St. Tickets are $17.50. (274-2599, www.cyranos.org).