A.R. Gurney’s “Sylvia” is kind of an old-fashioned play, a romantic comedy that simply tweaks the formula by making one corner of the love triangle a dog. It’s charming, witty and slight, designed to make you smile and not to make you think.
It’s the kind of play that appeals to a lot of people, and it requires only four actors, so it has become a popular choice for local and regional theaters. Its off-Broadway run in 1995, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, was a huge hit, as was its Broadway production last year, coincidentally starring Matthew Broderick, Parker’s real-life husband.
It’s a demanding play, though, because all four actors face unusual challenges.
The Manatee Players production, which opened Thursday in the intimate Bradenton Kiwanis Theater at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, features four actors who meet those challenges, under the direction of Preston Boyd.
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The story revolves around Greg (Mark Woodland), a middle-aged New Yorker who’s bored with his life in general and his job in particular. He comes across the titular stray dog (Brittney Klepper) in Central Park and becomes immediately rejuvenated. He brings Sylvia home, which does not please his wife (Tami Vaughan). Things get worse when Greg neglects his career and his marriage to dote on Sylvia.
Klepper’s challenge is the most obvious. Sylvia is essentially a human character — she converses on a philosophical level, does math and cites “The Odyssey” — but Klepper has to makes us constantly aware that she’s a dog. She doesn’t wear a dog costume, so Klepper has to create the illusion almost entirely through her attitude and energy. She does that very well.
The story revolves around Greg (Mark Woodland), a middle-aged New Yorker who’s bored with his life in general and his job in particular. He comes across the titular stray dog (Brittney Klepper) in Central Park and becomes immediately rejuvenated.
Woodland has a more subtle dilemma. Greg is a selfish jerk, and he treats his wife horribly. But our sympathies have to remain, at least partly, with him. Vaughan has the opposite challenge — her character is kind, smart and generous, but at times we have to think of her as a villain. Woodland and Vaughan make all that work with straightforward performances.
The fourth actor is Jalex Scott, who plays three roles: one man, one woman and one person of deliberately indeterminate gender. He’s solid in the first role and hilarious in the other two. Despite his limited stage time, he comes close to stealing the show even from Klepper’s wonderfully wry canine.
Ralph Nurmela’s set is a stylized New York skyline. It’s attractive and clever enough that you don’t mind looking at it for two hours, but its beige color makes it versatile enough to serve as the interiors of Greg’s home, and serves as a palette for lighting designer Patrick Bedell’s colorful creations.
Gurney, who also wrote (”Love Letters” and “The Dining Room”) doesn’t intend for us to care much about the story in “Sylvia.” We’re never emotionally invested in whether Greg’s marriage survives or even whether Greg’s wife allows him keep Sylvia. The playwright has created some great comic roles, and just means for excellent performers to inhabit those roles so we can enjoy a couple of hours of pure diversion. That’s exactly what director Boyd and his cast deliver.
Details: Through Oct. 2, Kiwanis Theater at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $27-$37. 941-748-5875, manateeperformingartscenter.com.