Choosing a favorite line of dialogue from A.R. Gurney's Sylvia is nearly impossible, as the playwright's hysterically clever and insightful comedy offers almost too many choices; some of Gurney's best jokes here are so spectacularly subtle that you barely register them. ("Just close your eyes and think of England" is an especially sharp throwaway.)
Yet in the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's production of the show, Mandy Landreth blurts out a line so funny, and so rich with meaning, that Friday night's audience members might never forget it. Certainly, they laughed practically every time it was delivered - which was probably close to three dozen times - and during the intermission, I overheard a woman repeating Landreth's quote to a group of friends, which caused them to start laughing all over again.
The line in question?
Playcrafters' Sylvia, which its program succinctly describes as "a love triangle between man, wife, and dog," finds Landreth playing the titular pooch, a stray taken in by the kindly, middle-aged Greg (Greg Bouljon), much to the dismay of his spouse, Kate (Stephanie Naab). Gurney's theatrical conceit - and it's a beauty - finds Sylvia and her owners freely conversing throughout the play, but as the pup is merely vocalizing the thoughts of her owners, only the audience is privy to her side of the conversation. Except, that is, whenever Sylvia shouts "Hey," which is Gurney's equivalent for the sound of a dog's bark, and which becomes a touchstone for Landreth's energetic, fantastically endearing performance; without ever altering her timbre on it, the actress finds a delightful wealth of variety in the author's one-syllable exclamation.
Sylvia repeatedly barks "Hey!" when she's anxious or confused, as she does when she hears Kate open an off-stage door. (Under Jennifer Kingry's elegant, continually inventive direction, Landreth - who spends most of her stage time walking upright - complements Sylvia's vocals by pacing with edgy, zig-zaggy anticipation.) She barks when she's enraged, as when - in the show's most achingly hilarious sequence - a cat threatens to cross Sylvia's path. ("I hate your guts, kitty!" Landreth screams at the feline. "And don't! You! Ever forget it!!!") She barks when, quite simply, she can't think of anything else to do. (When Greg offers her a treat if only she'll speak, Sylvia settles on "Hey!" after taking a moment to weigh options.)
Landreth is so fully committed to Sylvia's interior life that she makes her frequent delivery of that one word funny, charming, and wholly believable. Happily, she performs similar feats with all of her other words. Whether Sylvia is professing her undying adoration for Greg, intentionally ruffling Kate's feathers by lounging on the couch, zeroing in on the crotch of a snooty visitor (the terrifically aggrieved Mary Ross), or, after a grooming, sashaying through the apartment in a frilly pink dress - just one of many superb costumes coordinated by Mary Bouljon - Landreth's eager, confident readings continually match her expressive physicality.
At Friday's performance, though, the other cast members spent a little too much time being overshadowed by her. Exuding an utterly infectious happiness, Greg Kerr was sensational in his brief role as Greg's Central Park pal Tom, but it took several scenes to warm to Greg and Kate; Bouljon was so reserved that you didn't get much sense of the character's personality (for much of the show's length, he was simply The Man with the Leash), and Naab appeared so bitter from the start that Sylvia's arrival only seemed to exacerbate an already foul mood - Kate didn't seem worthy of Sylvia's presence.
Bouljon, however, grew more touching as the show progressed - especially when Greg's puppy love began to seriously threaten his marriage - and by the end of Act I, Naab had turned into an explosively dynamic presence; Kate's climactic face-off against Sylvia, which found Naab hissing her contempt on all fours, was a thing of incensed, comedic beauty. (The actors, here, are never better than when pissed off.)
Admittedly, there are a few other bumpy patches. Kate's penchant for quoting Shakespeare makes for some awkward scene cappers, and the bizarre, overtly jokey sequence involving Kate's pansexual therapist feels like it's from another show entirely. (This, though, is more the fault of Gurney than of the game Emmalee Moffitt, who plays the androgynous healer.)
But for every moment that's off, the production provides bunches more that are right on: Sylvia's curious, vaguely bored acknowledgment of a fire hydrant ("Just let me check my messages ... "); Kate's willful mispronunciation of her dog's name as "Saliva"; the sweet, unforced sentimentality of the closing image. With thanks to A.R. Gurney, Sylvia is the best script Playcrafters has produced since last November's Our Town. With thanks to Jennifer Kingry and a cast led by the wonderfully spirited Mandy Landreth, it's the best Playcrafters production since well before that.
For tickets, call (309) 762-0330.