Critics have often been divided on the works of A. R. Gurney, who friends call "Pete" rather than his given name, Albert. But audiences have flocked to his plays, from the stinging critiques of his WASP background in The Cocktail Hour and The Dining Room to his most recent successes, Love Letters and Sylvia.
In fact, the latter two have been among the most successful in terms of regional and road productions with Love Letters edging out Sylvia as the most widely done among Gurney's oeuvre. This month, Sylvia gets a leg up, so to speak, when Stephanie Zimbalist stars in an L.A. production as the title character, a female dog who comes between a tame middle-class financial analyst and his long-suffering wife.
On February 18, the production opens at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles, featuring Mary Beth Piel and Derek Smith and co-starring Charles Kimbrough, who created the role at the Manhattan Theatre Club opposite Sarah Jessica Parker, the first in a long line of actresses who have taken on the role since. The international success of Sylvia is all the more remarkable to its playwright, a passionate dog lover, because the play was turned down by so many producers before it found its first home at the MTC.
"Theatres refused it on the grounds that it equated a dog with a woman, and to ask a woman to play a dog was not just misogynist, but blatantly sexist," says Gurney, a charmingly affable man speaking from his N.Y. apartment, where Lucy, his labrador is lying at his feet. "Obviously, I didn't see it that way, and I still don't. But we were very nervous during previews because we didn't know what we had until the reviews came out."
While the play has been well received by critics and audiences alike in the U.S., it has had widely mixed response from abroad. Last year, a production in London was angrily and thoroughly condemned by the British critics. "It was a lovely production, beautifully directed and acted, starring Zoe Wanamaker, and the preview and opening audiences were wildly enthusiastic," recalls Gurney with some chagrin. "We thought we were going to run forever. But the critics were scathing."
The international response to the play, in fact, has been extremely divergent. The French were as dismissive as the British, while the Swedes totally embraced Bibi Andersson, an Ing-mar Bergman star, in the role of the frisky canine. It was also a big hit in Israel and Colombia, but a colossal failure in Mexico City. "The same production in Buenos Aires was hated [there], but loved in Montevideo," says Gurney, obviously bedeviled by the inconsistent pattern.
Gurney can take solace in the fact that Sylvia has been heartily embraced by dog lovers everywhere as well as others who relate to its timely message of the need to connect in an increasingly alien and impersonal world. "There is a need to connect, not only to a dog, but to other people through the dog," he says. "When you're walking a dog through the park, suddenly, it's not how much money you make, or how well you're born, but your relationship is based on a dog. The hero, Greg, becomes humanized through this dog. It leads him to breaking out of his old conventional ways. . . relating to people in a new way. It's almost as if we need an inhuman thing in order to make us feel most human."
-- By Patrick Pacheco