This dog won't hunt

Long before movie special-effects wizards combined animatronic models and animation to make animals talk, the stage endowed our fellow mammals with a human voice--and more often than not, they criticized us. Shakespeare summoned an entire forest of quasihuman animals in A Midsummer Night's Dream to remind us that the mystery of love lies in natural formulas we'll never fully grasp. The wildly successful 1940s Broadway comedy Harvey used light and shadow to project a fantastic 6-foot rabbit who spoke, eloquently if wordlessly, for the pain of people who prefer dreams to boring reality. On the New York stage, David Bowie played a man who looked like an animal (and was treated less generously than that for much of his life) in the true story of The Elephant Man, his posture and facial expressions relied upon to suggest deformity in the absence of 10-pound make-up.

More than a decade ago, Theatre Three staged its own talking-animal extravaganza, a dramatization of George Orwell's brilliant short novel, Animal Farm, that found actors expressing their greediest, most selfish natures from behind prosthetic snouts. It was a vivid, audience-participatory production that transcended the anti-Communist dogma (or is that pigma?) of Orwell's fantasy to suggest how God's four-footed creatures will, given the opportunity, comport themselves with the same brutal egomania that has distinguished humankind.

Theatre Three returns to the planet of vociferous quadrupeds with its second production for the '96-'97 season, Sylvia. This two-act, six-character, four-actor comedy about a loving stray dog who almost destroys the fragile relationship of a middle-aged married couple received the kind of aw-shucks reviews from the New York press that almost subliminally send the message, "This is a superior production of an inferior script." Sarah Jessica Parker, currently available in movie theaters as Bette Midler's dippy rival in The First Wives Club, played the title character, a big-hearted bitch who doesn't understand human society's rules about personal boundaries. So, she loves, hates, and lusts after humans and domesticated beasts alike with a crude passion that causes everyone around her to feel adored or alienated.

On paper, this sounds like the stuff of truly anarchic comedy. Unfortunately, Sylvia was written by A.R. Gurney, the sturdy, if drearily congenial, comic playwright who might best be described as Neil Simon in a 12-step program. Gurney isn't unreasonably optimistic as a writer, but he does tend to set windup characters on prosaic journeys of self-discovery. By his own admission, the playwright's favorite territory is white, college-educated, upper-middle-class professionals. This demographic needs a hearty goose, and although Gurney mimics a gadfly, he can never quite rock their worlds enough to create convincing dramatic tension.

The Dining Room is a famous and favored Gurney play, a look at how this hallowed site of family exchange serves the more immediate needs of different people under different circumstances (adult dinner parties, clandestine college drink sessions, etc.). It was modest but well-observed. Love Letters is Gurney's cash cow, a hugely successful dinner-theater staple that enjoys the dubious distinction of uniting Charlton Heston and George C. Scott with their equally hammy actress-wives in a two-character piece that examines a lifelong epistolary affair from hindsight. Whatever romance and insight the original script might have offered has been lost beneath the avalanche of sentimentality that fuels every new production.

Sylvia promises to be fresher and more startling than either of them, and Theatre Three presents its version at an appropriately quick, tidy clip. The career doldrums and empty-nest syndrome of Kate (Mary Anna Austin) and Greg (Terry Dobson) are exacerbated by a lost dog named Sylvia (Lanell Pena), whose unabashed hunger for life suggests the mysterious "essentials" that the depressed Greg has so desperately sought. Greg's escape into Sylvia is fueled by an alarmist fellow dog owner in the park and dissected by an androgynous therapist, both of whom are played by the Undermain's Ted Davey.

The show would be a lot more fun if the actors were to bring something more to it than the paint-by-numbers script dictates. Mary Anna Austin suggests less a spurned wife than an anxious grade-school librarian with her clipped, monochromatic line-readings. Terry Dobson expresses midlife turmoil as a sad sack or a doormat might; we suspect, based on his interpretation, that the character has found something to whine about at every age, so these tribulations lack urgency. Among the trio, only Davey carves out a memorable three-part performance, and two of those are in drag.

Which brings us to Lanell Pena as the furry interloper. The charm of this character is supposed to be her absolute lack of profundity, a "what you see is what you get" attitude. Pena is good as far as she takes Sylvia, which is just a stroll to the corner and back. Her animosity is indistinguishable in its blank enthusiasm from her affection, which does echo a certain canine style, but her climactic conversation with Dobson lacks emotional resonance because her feelings for him have never been made concrete.

Sylvia hits the intended targets when it suggests the intense, inscrutable devotion people can develop for their pets. Gurney's script is a perfect example of a pure theatrical invention; to imagine this story as a movie for, say, Disney (gotta be the Touchstone division, considering its adult concerns) with a real dog and her computer-generated mouth spouting passionate forget-me-nots for her master, is to completely destroy its poignant core. It's absolutely essential--if we are to believe the story's central bond--that an actress play a dog who must become an almost human companion for a man at a crisis point in his life. The best of their conversations echo, in a very literal way, the exchange of glances and rubs and murmurs that constitute the only communication available between human and dog. Only a playwright has the tools to portray intimacy on this level.

And the idea of Sylvia, a female whose emotion comes without inhibitions, is a comic wellspring from which an ingenious writer could draw any number of fertile scenarios. A.R. Gurney manages to pull off this play without getting mired in some of the problematic subtextual associations audiences might find watching a grown woman on a leash kneel at a man's feet. Sylvia is too straightforward about its comic intentions, too earnest and surface in its humanitarianism to deserve a slam for subliminal sexism.

This is also what allows the play to breeze right past you like a rubber ball in a game of fetch. Gurney wades through some fairly deep waters when he focuses on Greg's obsessive affection for his dog, but he never pulls back long enough to relate this mystery to the human relationships that surround it. We're intrigued by the idea that a woman might leave her husband because he's squandering all his time and emotion on the pet; unfortunately, what A.R. Gurney has to say about the wife and her husband isn't nearly as involving as his suggestions about the husband and the dog. A play that wraps itself up as neatly as Sylvia does--with an abrupt shift in allegiance so Gurney can express the primacy of man-woman love relationships--leaves some disconcerting holes, no matter how cute and fluffy it purports to be.

Sylvia runs through November 3 at Theatre Three. Call 871-3300.

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Jimmy Fowler