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A Winter's Tail 

Sit up and beg for the Theatre Guild of Webster Groves' Sylvia

Not too long ago I received an e-mail query from someone who asked why I have so often use the same phrase -- "despite the limitations" -- in reviews of community-theater offerings. The answer is simple: A reviewer takes no satisfaction in criticizing those who are working for free and trying their hardest against sometimes insurmountable budgetary and time constraints. Perhaps "despite the limitations" has become a code phrase to gloss over shortcomings. If quality is lacking in a community-theater production, we try not to jump all over it; if quality is present, we want to go out of our way to point it out.

The Theatre Guild of Webster Groves' production of A.R. Gurney's Sylvia is a case in point. Note that the author's initials are "A.R." The full name of this esteemed American playwright is Albert Ramsdell Gurney Jr. Yet the Webster Groves playbill spells the author's name as A.G. Gurney -- not once, but twice. Gurney's initials are misstated on the cover and the title page. While the error is doubtless an inadvertent slipup owing to time pressures, it's inexcusable.

Two seasons ago the St. Louis Rep omitted the exclamation point from posters and advance publicity materials for Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! Fortunately, someone caught the error at the last minute and all was remedied by opening night. Had the Rep not caught that error, it would (and should) have been called to account. But no one's going to get overly upset with the current Sylvia playbill; the fact is that our tolerance threshold is higher for amateur theater than it is for professional.

On the other hand, no one needs to impose a special threshold for assessing Colleen Backer's assured title-role performance as Sylvia. She's more poised, seductive, rambunctious and frisky than any mutt -- amateur or professional -- has a right to be.

Yes, Sylvia is a dog. By now, a decade after this unlikely comedy made its New York debut, she's probably the most famous dog in the history of American theater. Following its original off-Broadway engagement, Sylvia became the most-produced play of the 1996-97 season. But she's not been seen of late. So it's comforting to know that, in the right paws, she's still as fresh and perky as ever. This production, directed by Jill Kranzberg, is also a reaffirming reminder of Gurney's inventiveness. No two of his plays employ quite the same structure. Rather, they manifest what their author describes as an "obsessional playfulness" with form. It's that playfulness -- a playfulness that brings man's best friend to very feminine life -- that makes Sylvia so ebullient.

Greg (Dennis Crump), a staid WASP New Yorker, doesn't know that he's suffering from a midlife crisis when he finds a stray dog, part Lab, part poodle, in Central Park. In a "male menopausal moment," Greg brings the dog, Sylvia, home to his high-rise apartment. This rash decision is not welcomed by his wife, Kate (Lynda Levy Clark). After 22 years of marriage, and with the kids finally out of the nest, she's been looking forward to a life of chamber concerts and Spanish lessons.

Kate may treat Sylvia with a benign neglect bordering on hatred, but she's the only person in the theater who doesn't fall for the dog's charms. Part of the evening's theatrical duality is that, even as Sylvia sets out to seduce her new owners, Backer is seducing the audience as well. She purrs, she growls, she humps, she skids across the floor like Tom Cruise in Risky Business, she flutters her limpid eyes. This is a mutt? She's more like Veronica Lake with auburn hair. Forget about midlife crisis; what male wouldn't want to take Backer home?

So OK, the playbill is a mess. If you're smart, you'll toss it under your seat, forget about it, and revel in Backer's romp through this improbable yet lovable fiction. Here is a community-theater performance whose imagination is without limitations.

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