Tale o' the Pup

Who wouldn't want to take Sylvia home? Talk about adorable. Young, blond, frisky—she's every middle-aged man's fantasy. She also has four legs, a tail and fleas.

A.R. Gurney's fluffy comedy Sylvia, currently playing at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, asks if it's possible for a mutt to break up—or possibly save—a marriage. Sylvia (her name's the only info on her tag) is wandering loose in Central Park when Greg (played by John S. Davies) finds her and falls instantly in love. He brings her back to the apartment he shares with wife Kate (Lulu Ward), a teacher of Shakespeare in an inner-city school. Kate hates the creature on sight. But hubby is smitten with Sylvia, so she's allowed to stay. Kate, that is. No way is Greg giving up the pup.

To make a cutesy set-up even cutesier, Sylvia is played by an actress, in this production Catherine DuBord, without a single bark, growl or otherwise typical canine gesture. She doesn't gambol around on all fours like Peter Pan's Nana. She struts on shapely hind legs, dropping to the floor only when she wants to rest her pretty chin on her new owner's knee.

She also speaks her thoughts, mostly in full sentences. "Hey! Hey! Hey!" she yelps when she wants attention. To assert her supremacy over Kate, who's had Greg on a leash for 22 years, Sylvia says, "He loves me. He thinks I shit ice cream."

Indeed, he does. Greg is over the moon for the flirty mongrel and, in his devotion to her, almost lets lovely Kate slip away. But even Kate—who early in the play says "I never thought I could hate anyone but Nixon"—eventually comes around. She does insist on Sylvia, whom she dubs "Saliva," being spayed (there's the matter of a sexed-up neighbor named Bowser and besides, it's payback time). Sylvia describes the after-effects as feeling like "a gutted turkey."

In Sylvia, Gurney uses the dog as a big furry metaphor for anything that captures an older guy's fancy. Sports car, rotisserie league baseball or big-boobed bimbo—a man's mistress, whatever or whoever she is, takes a lot of time and attention away from his responsibilities. Greg risks his job, already hanging by a thread, to take Sylvia on long afternoon walks. When he comes in the door at night, he barely remembers to kiss Kate before offering Sylvia a loving smooch.

The dog also symbolizes those things that cue the jealousy monster in women. Just look at Sylvia when she comes back from the groomer. Gone are the ragged overalls and dirty sneakers. She's been transformed into a butt-wiggling show dog in a tight black cocktail dress and sexy high heels.

Under the direction of Susan Sargeant, who also staged Gurney's The Dining Room at CTD, Sylvia makes its salient points about human and dog behavior without ever getting pedantic. The actors portraying people—Davies, Ward and versatile Steven Pounders, who plays a man, a woman and something in between—have a relaxed rapport that lets the comedy float freely. Davies, an oomphy gray-haired actor, rarely lands a starring role this good. Ward makes sympathetic the tough role of the bitchy wife competing with a younger bitch.

As the doggie, DuBord, an SMU theater grad, sniffs the air and tosses her floppy pigtails and somehow becomes part-Labrador, part-poodle. It's a tricky transformation, and the only place where the actress doesn't seem to understand the playwright's intent is the opening scene. There, Sylvia should be mistaken for a paramour before it's obvious that she's a house pet. That's how the scene is written, and the whole play is funnier if the audience has to figure out the deception at the start. Otherwise, it's—you guessed it—just a shaggy dog story.

The wind doesn't howl in End Times, the new Allison Moore drama getting its world premiere at Kitchen Dog Theater. It roars like a beast, ferociously shaking the plank floors and rattling the windows of the tiny Oklahoma farmhouse widowed Janie (Sally Nystuen-Vahle) shares with teenage stepdaughter Fern (Clara Peretz). They're stuck in the middle of the 1930s Dust Bowl and are down to their last jar of peaches when Fern's estranged older brother Brandon (Lee Trull) hits the porch after a four-year absence.

Is he there to save them or rob them? Neighbor and handyman Gilbert (Barry Nash) suspects the latter. He thinks Brandon's wad of cash came from cold-blooded murder, but Janie, a zealous Christian, wants to give Brandon a chance to redeem himself. If Brandon will only invite Jesus into his heart, his soul (and the farm) will be safe when the end comes—and given the dire weather and desperate financial straits, that could be any day, according to Janie and her Bible.

Mystery and madness, romance and religious conviction color characters and themes in End Times, a play so important and so beautifully crafted it deserves comparisons to Steinbeck and Faulkner. Throughout the two-hour saga of four people battling the ugliest aspects of both nature and human nature, Moore weaves examples of the real horrors wrought by the awful drought (and the stupid human errors) that reduced once-green Oklahoma farmland to dust. Cows die trying to eat bone-dry ground. Jackrabbits fry hitting barbed wire electrified by static-charged air. Families trying to escape the disaster are found huddled in rattletrap cars when highways are blocked by windblown drifts of dirt and tumbleweeds.

End Times draws in the audience with authentic details, then Kitchen Dog's production goes deeper with lavish use of elements that make live theater, when it's done this well, a full, sensory experience. The scenic design by Clare Floyd DeVries puts the real—the old-fashioned pump appears to work and there's a cellar beneath that door in the dusty floor—against well-chosen symbols such as a windmill towering stage right and the white cotton sheets representing a sun-bleached sky. Sound designer Emily Young has created thrilling storm sounds that fill the theater when one of those "dusters" rolls in. To open and close each act, old-timey bluegrass and gospel music waft into the air as if from a faraway radio station. The lighting design by Laura McMeley subtly washes that white sky in eerie shades of yellow and gray when the weather turns foul again. The beauty of all this is how it works of a piece, with no one thing stealing focus from the drama.

Not since Kitchen Dog's superb staging of Sam Shepard's disturbing Buried Child has a play at this theater blended technical design and performance so seamlessly. Such acting. Nystuen-Vahle gives Janie a quiet dignity and persistent sadness that change only briefly when Gilbert proposes with a blurted-out "Marry me!" This actress carries the weight of the play, and she is a marvel. Cherry Jones good (if you're a Broadway aficionado). Meryl Streep good (if you're not).

Lee Trull comes into his own as a dramatic actor in End Times. Director Tina Parker has stopped Trull from reaching into his usual bag of tricks and has erased his annoying actorly tics (like keeping his mouth open when he's not speaking). He's a young, sinewy John Carradine in the role of troubled Brandon, like he stepped right off the set of The Grapes of Wrath.

Clara Peretz makes a memorable first appearance at Kitchen Dog as sweet, frail Fern. She's had roles at Dallas Theater Center, Shakespeare Dallas and Echo Theatre, but in End Times she begins her career as an actress of real substance.

Baldheaded stage veteran Nash, who starred in that award-winning Buried Child, is an earthy-sexy Gilbert. His no-nonsense seduction of Janie is the best scene in the play, if only for the joy of watching two fine older actors share something so real the audience feel like intruders on their privacy.

End Times ends the current season for Kitchen Dog. See this one if you can. It will blow you away.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner