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January 14, 2011

TT: She's a real dog

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I report on a show I saw last week in Fort Myers, Florida Rep's revival of Sylvia, and take note of the Broadway transfer of The Importance of Being Earnest, which I was supposed to see on Wednesday afternoon. Here's an excerpt.

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Sylvia_10-0357_38083_t607.jpgCleverness, like cuteness, is in the eye of the beholder, so let me start by saying that A.R. Gurney's "Sylvia," which is being performed with terrific comic energy by the Florida Repertory Theatre, is both clever and cute in all the right ways. First seen in New York a decade and a half ago, Mr. Gurney's droll tale of a dog who comes between a middle-aged man and his frustrated wife has long since become a regional-theater staple, as well it should be. Not only is "Sylvia" one of the funniest small-cast plays of the past quarter-century, but just beneath the surface it has serious things to say about the travails of what one of the characters calls "the dangerous years...the years between the first hint of retirement and the first whiff of the nursing home." Moreover, Mr. Gurney says them so amusingly that you almost fail to notice the sharp bite of the medicine of truth.

The trick to "Sylvia" is that the title character, a stray poodle-Labrador mix, is played by a young woman (Michelle Damato) who is capable of conversing with her master (Gordon McConnell) and mistress (Carrie Lund) when no one else is around to eavesdrop. Greg, who found her in the park one day, is deep in the throes of a work-related midlife crisis. Accordingly, he falls for Sylvia in much the same way that another man might fall for a younger woman, much to the horror of Kate, his wife, who didn't want a dog in the first place and really doesn't want one on whom her husband dotes to the exclusion of everyone else, Kate included. Stir in a third actor (Chris Clavelli) who plays three smaller roles, two of them in drag, and you get a recipe for Gurney-style comedy...

Ms. Damato is entirely delightful in the canine role created Off Broadway by Sarah Jessica Parker in 1995. Her frisky body language and dead-sure comic timing couldn't be bettered. Not that her colleagues are anything other than right on the button: Here as in the two previous Florida Rep shows I've seen, you get the feeling that you're watching a permanent ensemble at work on stage, one whose members know and trust one another....

Speaking of drag acts, the smartest one ever to come my way is currently doing business in Manhattan: The Roundabout Theatre Company has brought to Broadway Brian Bedford's brilliantly zany Stratford Shakespeare Festival staging of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," in which the veteran classical comedian dons wig and gown to play Lady Bracknell.

As I wrote in this space when I saw the production in Canada two summers ago, "I don't care for camped-up drag acts, but Mr. Bedford, who makes himself up to look like Queen Victoria and carries himself like a snooty gargoyle, is giving us something completely different, an impersonation so sharp-witted and closely observed that it demands to be accepted on its own daring terms"...

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted January 14, 2011 12:00 AM

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