Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Stray Dog Theatre
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's review of The Boy from Oz

Tim Naegelin and Kay Love
Photo by John Lamb
There are two well-known "Sylvia's" in modern theater: Edward Albee's famous goat (from 2002) who only appears on-stage in a bloody canvas bag late in the story; and this one, A.R. Gurney's anthropomorphized dog (from 1995), who bounds on stage on page one. Both Sylvias raise questions about man's place in the world: the former through high-minded absurdism; the latter by way of pop-culture laughs.

But director, and Stray Dog Theatre's Artistic Director, Gary F. Bell has amped-up the drama in Gurney's play, with two touching actors playing Sylvia's adoptive human parents: Tim Naegelin and Kay Love. As a result, a marriage is seriously at stake, even as modern issues, like the disposability of dogs and the increasingly inorganic feeling of big city life, gain traction from their bittersweet characterizations. Balancing all that, deliciously funny Melissa Harlow adds some much-needed humor in three wildly different roles.

Structurally, Mr. Gurney's script sniffs around for 35 minutes before landing on its own magical spot—when Greg (Mr. Naegelin) begins ruminating under the stars and over elusive glimpses of humanity in the middle of New York City, while out walking his dog Sylvia (Susie Lawrence). He is finally reconnected with nature, after twenty years in the world of high finance and can wax poetic because his dog will gladly endorse anything he says. The bond between man and dog goes back many thousands of years, of course, and seems unbreakable in this case. The marriage with Kate, less and less so.

And we're finally sucked in after that nighttime walk. Greg exists, not just as a universal man trapped in a world of money markets and debentures, but as a man rediscovering his soul, in Mr. Naegelin's performance. And till the struggle's over, both Mr. Naegelin and Ms. Love are able to convey entirely different kinds of wistful heartbreak with the bat of an eye, a gift director Bell exploits with precision. But it puts Sylvia increasingly in the dog house, as the bitch who's stealing Kate's husband.

It all begs the question, "did A.R. Gurney have some horrific extramarital affair right before he wrote this play?" Greg and Kate's marital strains are eased when Melissa Harlow's three very funny characters each pass through, on a stage featuring an elegant, urbane set by Miles Bledsoe. One by one, a pre-hipster Brooklynite, a Manhattan socialite, and a non-binary therapist draw the couple into new ways of looking at their relationship and their respective goals. Ms. Harlow first appears as Tom, the avuncular dog expert at the park; later as Phyllis, a deliriously comical Vassar sorority sister; and finally as Leslie, even farther out into the stratosphere as a marriage counselor who is led to the most extreme position any marriage counselor (or pet owner) could possibly end up in. Ms. Harlow is excellent in all three roles.

As Sylvia, Ms. Lawrence is also an unstoppable comic force throughout. But it's her final big speech to Kate that packs an astringent sting. In the heat of the moment, just as she's about to be packed off to an unknowable fate, out tumbles a tale of similar banishments she's endured in her own life: passed from owner to owner, and shelter to shelter. Once again we are reminded how much we mean to the lowest in our lives. A better solution, and a more heartwarming ending, is quickly hammered out.

Sylvia, through June 22, 2019, at Stray Dog Theatre, Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave., St. Louis MO. For more information visit

Cast (in order of appearance):
Greg: Tim Naegelin
Sylvia: Susie Lawrence
Kate: Kay Love
Tom: Melissa Harlow
Phyllis: Melissa Harlow
Leslie: Melissa Harlow

Artistic Staff:
Director: Gary F. Bell
Associate Artistic Director: Justin Been
Stage Manager: Isabel Nauman
Scenic Designer: Miles Bledsoe
Lighting Designer: Tyler Duenow
Costume Designer: Gary F. Bell
Box Office Manager: Miles Bledsoe