A Dog's Life: A.R. Gurney's 'Sylvia' bounds onto the Long Wharf Stage

NEW HAVEN -- Man's best friend. Our furry four-legged pals become part of the family, a welcome addition to a home, giving unconditional love along with licks and slobbers.

A.R. "Pete" Gurney's comedy "Sylvia," which opens Wednesday at Long Wharf Theatre, adds a whole other dimension to the concept of pet, opening up a whole lot of questions about love, relationships and life in general -- all prompted by the addition of a needy dog named Sylvia, who just happens to grace the stage in the form of a sultry and sometimes salty-mouthed young woman.

Eric Ting, associate artistic director of LWT, is directing the piece, which stars Tony Award winner Karen Ziemba in her Long Wharf debut as Kate, the anti-dog mate of Greg (Long Wharf veteran John Procaccino), with Erica Sullivan in the title role. Jacob Ming-Trent plays a trio of supporting characters.

The conceit is rife with metaphors and open to interpretation.

Ting loves what he calls "its inherent theatricality. Gurney does this really great thing obviously in making the choice of casting the dog as a young woman, which is the first thing. I love in theater when a choice is made that can only happen in theater, that invites the audience to use their imaginations."

Is Sylvia a mistress image and a symbol of Greg's midlife crisis? Is she a metaphor for the marriage, which sees two people going in opposite directions, both in their relationship and their careers?

"Sylvia is like a grenade that gets lobbed into this relationship," says Ting. "In a way, one could mistakenly suggest that she's the reason it falls apart. Not true. She merely aggravates it, accelerates it. In the course of the play, she becomes the manifestation for the two of them, for that schism -- and I think wrongfully blamed for it. That's part of what's beautiful about it."

Ziemba, who is usually found singing and dancing in such shows as "Contact" for which she won the Tony Award, and "Chicago," "42nd Street" and "A Chorus Line," saw the show twice after it first opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1995, relishing the role of Sylvia, which Gurney wrote especially for Sarah Jessica Parker.

"It's just delightfully funny, moving, and I remember thinking, God, I'd love to do this play. I'd love to play Sylvia. That was 15 years ago, but now it's not appropriate," she says.

Ziemba instead plays Kate, the less showy role, but one fraught with its own special challenges. For starters, how does one garner sympathy from a populace that just about worships dogs while playing a seemingly dog-hating spoilsport, in a vehicle which literally anthropomorphizes them?

"Kate has always been a problem character to me," says Ting. "In the play she comes off the villain, but what we keep coming back to, and what Karen has been amazingly adept at revealing, is it's not that she doesn't like animals; it's just not her priority, and one interferes with the other."

The dog comes at a time when Greg is bored with his job as an investment banker and at odds with his boss -- while Kate is on the upswing in her career as an inner-city teacher trying to cajole urban kids to read Shakespeare.

A longtime real-life dog owner and lover herself, Ziemba finds Kate's reaction to Sylvia a plausible pause in the course of a long marriage.

"It's always scary when change happens, where someone's evolving and not on the same level as someone else, especially when married for 22 years," Ziemba says.

It's not just the presence of the dog; it's all it represents: "She doesn't want the dog to be part of her and Greg's life and all that comes with it -- the long walks, being outside, being out of her life. It's what she's objecting to and fearful of, and breaking off with her own agenda and the secure, usual track they've been on."

What it's ultimately about, is love, and that's why Gurney wrote it. The renowned and prolific playwright, whose "The Cocktail Hour" and "Let's Do It" have been performed at LWT, is an ardent dog lover, and he just wanted to write about them. When he cast the dog as a woman, however, he caused, what was to him, an unexpected feminist uproar, but, for a playwright, an attention-getting bit of spotlight.

"It's completely about love in all different ways," says Ting.

Ziemba adds, "also, tolerance and acceptance, looking beyond the exterior and using your heart to make decisions as opposed to just your mind."

Ting says there's a tendency to "talk about the role Sylvia plays in this, but we've been having a marvelous time investigating Kate and Greg's relationship. It's really clear that these two have grown some distance apart. ... "

Ting says that Sullivan, who's a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and has appeared in several roles at Yale Repertory Theatre, totally embraces her inner dog, if you will.

"Erica is amazing in this role. What it comes down to is they see the essence of a dog which is fabulous, which is what Gurney does in this play, which is not always recognized, but he's really written a Pygmalion story ..."

Hint: Its a comedy, so expect a happy, though not cliche ending.

Sylvia, says Ziemba, is the catalyst for the couple to do a little reassessment of their own marriage.

"It's really how she affects this couple and their lives. They have the gravitas, and how any kind of outside stimulus or association or new thought affects your relationship with someone you've been with for a long time and how wonderful that can be .. It takes work to change, but change has to open your mind and heart."

That Gurney does not write in a linear structure keeps the audience guessing between scenes as to just where we are now, and it's a fun structural decision, lending a kind of bounce that almost mimics Sylvia bounding into the couple's life.

Says Ting, "It's certainly so easy to imagine this play with three humans. That's what made it work for me -- not seeing it as a dog, or seeing it as a play about a dog, but seeing it as a young woman, and always having that conversation made it much less like an issue -- treating Sylvia with that level of respect that you would a woman."

His cast is "amazing. I'm in love with them, and they all bring their own selves to the parts. ..., " he says, noting that Sullivan "has a bravery to her that is second to none."

Hopefully, he says, "You get a story with people on stage who are deeply familiar, engaged in situations that are out-of-your-seat hilarious, but in such a way that any one of us could find ourselves in that situation."

Or maybe hope to.