There once thrived in the commercial theater a genre that amounted to sex comedy without sex. The ingredients were simple: one husband in mid-midlife crisis, one frostily attractive wife, and one irresistible bimbette who by her mere presence chastely roiled the marital waters. So that no tired businessman need ever fear taking his spouse to such an entertainment, the bimbette was always pictured as adorable, innocent, and so clearly wrong for the Walter Mittyish husband that there could be no doubt about the evening’s outcome. Think The Seven Year Itch, Any Wednesday, or any of six dozen slick, trivial comedies that cluttered midcentury Broadway for years at a time.
Then think Sylvia, A.R. Gurney’s one-joke update on the form, in which the bimbette has been turned (wink, wink) into a dog. Bounding scruffily onto Studio’s sparkling new Milton Theater stage, Sylvia (played with bright eyes, matted coat, and single-minded concentration by Sarah Marshall) is an affectionate mutt who can stroke a new master’s male ego in ways no ’50s mistress ever dared. “I love you,” she growls at Greg (Michael Goodwin) within an hour of their first encounter in Central Park. “I think you’re God, if you wanna know.”
From the googly eyes Greg makes back at her, it’s clear he’s equally smitten, but his plans to pet and pamper Sylvia don’t sit well with his wife, Kate (Mary Ellen Nester). She worries that the yapping mutt will only prove a distraction for her mate, who’s having problems at work, and already seems distant at home. Those concerns are echoed, in time-honored sexless-sex comedy fashion, by a male stranger in the park, a WASPy female chum of Kate’s, and a marriage counselor of indeterminate gender (all played brightly by J. Fred Shiffman). Greg remains puppyish. Sylvia remains devoted.
This would be thin material for a 15-minute sketch, let alone a play, but that hasn’t stopped Gurney from extending it well beyond the two-hour mark, or from allowing his one wan germ of an ideathat humans yearn for unconditional acceptanceto get swamped in performance shtick. In fact, he invites the swamping by piling cross-gender casting atop cross-species casting, quite as if wrapping Marilyn Monroe’s Seven Year Itch character in a permanent, nonremovable fur coat were a stunt that needed topping. He does this not to any particular point, mind you. Just for kicks. Even if gimmickry were all it took to be a playwright, Gurney would still be a hack.
Joy Zinoman’s crisp staging does what it can to obviate the show’s insipidity. She has wisely had Marshall ration the dog mannerisms so they’ll last a whole evening, with a new onesay a leg-hump, or a lap-snuffle, or a floor-thumping foot that mimics the wagging of a tailcropping up every five or 10 minutes to keep us watching. Marshall, with her touseled hair and fierce concentration, makes a pretty sublime Sylvia. When scratched behind the ears, she can dissolve her features into a portrait of the purest canine pleasure. Which is not to say the novelty of her performance doesn’t wear thin by intermission.
Shiffman, playing three different one-note characters, actually fares better. His on-the-wagon WASP matron is a special treat, making such pronouncements as, “I think all men should be Republican; it seems to be good for their prostates,” while primly smoothing her skirt, hair, and makeup, and struggling vainly to fend off Sylvia’s attentions. Nester and Goodwin have comparatively thankless roles and handle them capably and with a good deal more dignity than you might expect.
As the first set designer to work in Studio’s elegant second-story home, James Kronzer has had the smart idea of extending the new auditorium’s sleek styling and blond wood into his carpeted, gently curved setting. Wide and commodious, the Milton Theater is a splendid, intimate space, with seats arranged in a smooth arc that allows lots of legroom and uninterrupted sightlines. And Kronzer has kept the stage similarly uncluttered, with furniture that slides into the wings under its own power and a patterned backdrop that turns transparent and star-studded during nighttime scenes. Daniel MacLean Wagner’s evocative lighting allows leaps from bright interiors to dappled parkland, seeming even to transform carpeting into grass. Also helpful are Helen Q. Huang’s witty costumes, which include a pink, poodle-skirted number for Sylvia when she receives her first professional grooming.
In short, the company has done just about everything it can to elevate Gurney’s excruciatingly obvious comedy to a level that doesn’t reek of dinner theater. But even so elevated, Sylvia remains a mindless, empty commercial vehicle.
Decidedly noncommercial, and almost daring in its insistence on dragging patrons through the one civic experiencejury dutythey’re most likely to resist in real life, Joe Sutton’s Voir Dire is being vividly realized in a very physical production at Arena Stage. Which is a good thing, because the play is way too earnest for words.
I mean that literally. The dialogue Sutton has his six jurors spoutingas they argue the fate of a black school official charged with buying drugssounds exactly like what you’d expect from real jurors locked in argument. Sutton has carefully mixed types in the jury, so that its one white male and five women (one of whom is Hispanic, another black) can reasonably offer a full spectrum of views. And they doon questions of race, class, police ethics, police brutality, nature, nurture, judicial blindness, judicial fairness, and a host of other issues.
Every bit of what they say, no matter how naive or misguided, comes from the heart. And while that’s admirable, and evenhanded, it tends to rob the evening of drama. With no villains or heroes, and everyone trying to do the right thing, the only real question is which way the verdict will go. Where Twelve Angry Men was a detective story, with jury members examining the evidence and discovering reasonable doubt, Voir Dire is a civics lesson, with the emphasis on social issues, rather than on the facts of the case. After a very short period it feels as if the author is pamphleteering through his characters.
But those characters are plenty vibrant in Gordon Edelstein’s spare, forceful production. While the shouting matches often come down to just three jurorsSteve Cell’s tremendously engaging, ferociously manipulative yupster, Robin Weigert’s pushy feminist, and Phyllis Yvonne Stickney’s dignified explainer of all things blackthe others also make their presence felt. Tana Hicken is subtle and amusing as a businesswoman whose initial reaction on seeing the defendant is, “I am not that man’s peer.” Miranda Kent lends what complexity she can to the evening’s transplanted Nebraskan, who seems to have been conceived simply as a naif. And though somewhat hampered in such voluble company by the author’s decision to give her character a bleeding ulcer rather than lines, Vanessa Aspillaga is persuasive as the Hispanic mother who proves to be the evening’s pivotal figure.
For all Voir Dire’s emphasis on big issues, what the audience seems most eager to pounce on in Sutton’s writing is the moments where he allows characters to mark time. To play. To be ridiculous. The evening’s biggest laugh erupts when the play’s most disputatious character attempts to short-circuit discussion altogether. “Before you start,” she bellows, fairly leaping across a table, “what are you saying?”
I suspect the author would be wise to take a cue from that laugh. There’s no question that the meat and potatoes of the play are the arguments he’s crafted. They must carry the evening’s weight. But as things now stand, respite from those arguments seems to be what the audience is hungriest for.CP