Man’s best friend counters the dog days of life.
How much do we love our pets? For one man, it might just be a relationship that’s unnervingly close to a romance, much to the chagrin of his wife.
Written by A.R. Gurney and directed by Pavan J. Singh, Sylvia is a modern romantic comedy that follows middle-aged ‘empty-nesters’ Greg and Kate (Sean Worrall and Susie Penrice Tyrie), as they sell their home in the suburbs and down-size to a fashionable park-view apartment in the city. With their kids out of the picture, it’s finally time to really lead the lives they’ve always wanted – Kate is particularly excited about her job as a junior high teacher. But for Greg, whose career is hitting a plateau, life seems to have lost its meaning. That is, until he ventures into the park and meets Sylvia, and decides to take her home.
Despite the unusually human name she has, Sylvia is in fact a dog. But played by a human actor (Alex Kong) without a fur suit or overt visual indicator, the line between person and animal is oftentimes blurred during the performance. This represents how Greg himself sees her as a fellow human being and how close their bond is, complete with the fact that the two can literally speak to and understand each other in English.
The sudden introduction of Sylvia into their lives causes a rift between Greg and Kate: what the latter assumed would be a brand new life of full of possibility, big travel plans, and a chance to deepen their relationship is instead brought to a grinding halt with how much Greg obsesses over Sylvia. For the audience, we’re initially inclined to side with Kate; watching the way Greg and Sylvia interact feels akin to an older man and much younger girl engaging in puppy play, to the extent that she even dons a harness and leash when taken on walks.
However, one gets used to this after some time, especially watching how Alex Kong dedicates herself entirely to the role, bringing with her a yappy, manic energy and uninhibited animalism to her physicality, from excitement over meeting fellow dogs in the park, to scarpering about the living room before jumping onto the couch. In addition, the relationship never reaches anything sexual, and instead, evolves to become more similar to that of a father and daughter, where Greg becomes protective, rather than possessive of Sylvia, constantly wondering if he’s doing a good job as her new owner.
What we come to understand of the relationship between Greg and Sylvia is that it is one of mutual salvation. While Greg may have saved Sylvia from a life of homelessness, Sylvia has in fact rescued Greg from a mid-life crisis, with how Greg becomes disillusioned by his office job and takes frequent days off for ‘health reasons’. Sylvia becomes the conduit for which he finds meaning in life, bringing him joy and purpose by caring for her, to the extent he hangs onto every word fellow dog owner Tom (Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai) at the park advises him on, or how the subject of conversation immediately turns to his concern for Sylvia rather than Kate during a trip to the therapist (also Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai).
As much as we feel for Greg, we too sympathise with Kate, who plays the role of the long-suffering wife. It makes complete sense that she would be annoyed when these ‘temporary arrangements’ become more permanent, and with Kate and Sylvia at each other’s throats, there comes a point where the two are literally growling opposite each other in a fit of rage. With Gurney’s writing, Kate becomes the most complex character within the play, as we see her go through an entire gauntlet of emotions dealing with this new obstacle in her life vying for Greg’s time and attention.
Sylvia is a relatively simple play that is buoyed by its cast’s performances. Director Pavan J Singh captures the nuance of each character, and brings out a natural portrayal from his cast, while also knowing how to pick up on Gurney’s humour and comic timing where necessary. Sean Worrall captures a sense of sympathy in how despondently he plays Greg, and one cannot help but root for him to find happiness, constantly pushing himself to be the best owner he can with his reassurance and outpouring of love.
Meanwhile, Susie Penrice Tyrie does fantastic work layering her performance as Kate; what could have been a delusional comic character randomly quoting Shakespeare between scenes is given a sympathetic touch, at times appearing completely helpless and at her wit’s end each time she sees her husband, with many likely to resonate with her exasperation. Alex Kong, as previously mentioned, leans into her animal side, and while primarily ruled by base instinct, also shows off a softer, quieter side as she gazes up at Greg and listens intently to his woes, with unconditional love.
Rounding up the cast is Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai, who plays three minor characters in the play, each time offering some form of sagely advice to the others. While her roles aren’t big, Sangeetha manages to steal every scene she’s in and milks them for comic relief, whether as the dog-obsessed Tom with questionable advice, or the ambiguously gendered therapist Leslie, who gives up on Greg after hearing his side of the story. Sangeetha even gets to show off her singing chops, as she opens the second act with a sultry cover of ‘Autumn In New York’, bringing the play to its denouement.
What makes Sylvia work is how amidst the comedy, the play punches hard when it comes to the very real issue of existential crises and suddenly feeling completely lost in life. In the face of age and mortality, one often finds only meaninglessness in our daily routines. It’s no wonder that Sylvia becomes the solution to it, and reminds us that it is love and our relationships that keep us going against the odds. Whether you’re a dog person or not, Sylvia is a strong argument for keeping a pet companion, and leaves us with the all-important reminder for empathy; sometimes, all we have to do it put our misgivings aside, let life take us wherever it wants, and from there, do what makes us happy.
Sylvia played from 18th to 22nd May 2022 at Goodman Arts Centre Black Box.