New Theatre’s Sylvia is an irresistible mutt, but She&Her’s Reindeer Monologues are eight too many

Bark if you’ve heard this one before.

Middle-aged man, vaguely dissatisfied with life, meets a gorgeous young lady — perky body; long, curly hair; affectionate and enamored; always ready for a romp but looking for commitment. They fall in love. Man takes her home, presents her to the wife and asks if his new sweetheart can join the household.

It’s an age-old tale, and not just on daytime talk shows.

Yes, the interloper in question is a dog. But does that make it any easier to take? She’s still siphoning attention, adoration, time and resources that had previously been devoted to the wife. Who in the same situation could be blamed for feeling unwelcoming, resentful, replaced?

Greg and Kate are the couple in question, empty nesters who have recently returned to New York City after raising their kids in the suburbs. Kate is beginning a rewarding career teaching Shakespeare in public school. Greg, however, is having conflicts with his job and boss. So he leaves work early one day for a walk in Central Park. That’s where he meets the dog, whose tag gives just her name: Sylvia.

In some of the most detailed and insightful character work I’ve seen this season, Susan Louise O’Connor plays Sylvia as a delightfully typical yet singular pup. From scratching fleas and settling blissfully onto the forbidden sofa to performing dumb pet tricks and begging for walks, O’Connor does canine personality to shaggy perfection. And, boy, does she know how to sniff a crotch.

Supporting actress Cathy Barnett gets to let loose with a wide-ranging trio of over-the-top secondary characters: a macho man who over-identifies with his macho dog; a supposedly sophisticated socialite with gaudy tastes and a weird, ostentatious accent; and a spats-wearing mad psychiatrist of indeterminate gender.

Charles Moore’s oversized set is nearly as flamboyant, its dizzying perspectives cluing us in that things are not as they seem. Against all this wackiness, Jim Korinke’s Greg and Cindy Williams’ Kate share the unenviable task of playing an extremely ordinary, long-married, earth-tone-clad couple. But the seasoned professionals hold their own. Korinke gets the flashier role of a man in classic midlife crisis, while Williams plays the more difficult part of a post-menopausal version of sensible, rule-following Shirley Feeney.

Williams has to be the naysayer regarding Sylvia, on the very reasonable grounds that the dog sheds, pees on furniture, jumps on people, and distracts Greg’s attention from both job and wife. As a suburban mother myself, I felt a lot more sympathy for Kate than playwright A.R. Gurney probably intended. After taking care of her children for decades, Kate is embarking on a second act in her life, with a new degree, a new career, and a hard-won travel grant to Stratford-on-Avon. Only Sylvia stands in the way.

Williams is a gracious actor who lets O’Connor occupy center stage for most of the show while gently persuading us to see Kate’s side of the story. Credit goes also to Richard Carrothers’ smooth direction and very capable production, which makes Sylvia as fun and irresistible as our beloved canine companions.

From the New Theatre, the most commercially successful theater in town — and one of the most successful dinner theaters in the country — I worked my way to the other extreme: She&Her Productions, one of the newest and scrappiest theater ventures in Kansas City.

She&Her’s directors have put a lot of love and work into their little party, set in a gorgeous, old industrial building in the West Bottoms. And it shows, from the decorative snowflake lights that illuminate the parking lot to the walls knocked down to create the theater area. Heating is provided — meagerly — by standing units most often found on restaurant patios, and the stage and lighting are rudimentary. But the seating is comfortable, and free pizza is offered before the show; on the night I attended, keepsake koozies also were offered with canned beverages.

If thoughtful touches and cold beer were all it took, then She&Her would be all set. But, unfortunately, the play itself, Jeff Goode’s inept The Eight: Reindeer Monologues, doesn’t merit all this effort. The theatrical equivalent of a bad Saturday Night Live skit painfully distended into a feature-length movie, The Eight reads like an immature writing exercise — Imagine a personality for each of Santa’s eight reindeer! Make each as different as possible! — hustled onstage to make food money for the family. Dance, Gypsy! Dance!

The supposedly oh-so-provocative premise is that Santa is accused of raping Vixen in the toyshop. Each reindeer gives his or her version of the event, creating a Rashomon-like, fragmented picture of the herd and its discontents: Dasher, the tough buck who dismisses Vixen’s accusations as prissy whining; Cupid, who has shocking accusations of his own against the Jolly Old Pervert; Blitzen, the militant, vagina-powered feminist …

Sorry, I drifted off. How many is that? Eight is an awful lot of dysfunctional reindeer monologues, especially when there’s no rhyme or reason to the progression. The production’s four young actors do their best, delivering their multiple, overlong passages with determination, verve and, in some places, admirable wit and imagination (particularly Taylor St. John). But they don’t really have a chance to keep this clumsy, unbalanced sleigh in the air.

Crucially missing from the proceedings is the defendant, bad Santa himself, who, if all reports are true, is a cruel, indiscriminate, polymorphously perverse cross-species molester — preying on reindeer, elves, and human boys and girls alike. Who is this enigma wrapped in red and white, and what sociopathy drives him to such compulsive, wanton sadism and abuse? Who really cares? And why is this billed as comedy?

There are clever lines aplenty but too few laughs. And the ending dumps us in an unexpectedly sordid and somber place, although it’s not clear to what purpose.

New companies are sprouting like mushrooms, a sign of the vitality of our town’s theater scene. These agile, energetic groups are putting in sweat equity, experimenting with new ideas, trying to find their voices and audiences. It’s an exciting time, but sometimes the value placed on “edginess” and on pieces that push envelopes and buttons results in weak material that’s simply unworthy of the passion and hard work.

Good plays are hard to find, especially ones that work with limited resources, but I’m hopeful that it can be done. Here’s looking forward to greatness from our little companies in the new year.

Categories: A&E, Stage