Sylvia Howls Along at Niagara University

I’m putting this right up front: “Sylvia” on stage at Niagara University’s William P. and Marie Leary Theatre in the Elizabeth Ann Clune Center for Theatre is a completely student run production.

NU’s theatre department is indeed the stuff of legends and I respect that. All our regional stages and beyond are all the better by having NU alumni engaged.

That in itself begs me to assess this production at a higher level.

The production itself is fine: A.R. Gurney (another local legend) penned this comedy in 1995 (set in the 1980s) and –regrettably – like many Gurney scripts, the intent  may stand the test of time, but most of the nuances date themselves by the end of its respective decade. Case in point: the Manhattan skyline backdrop includes the Twin Towers. A note in the playbill that place-sets the production would have helped give this context to the audience. Speaking of the playbill, it’s a tradition to include a bio of the playwright here: this one didn’t. Gurney is only mentioned in the director’s notes, and sadly, it’s a direct lift from a Wikipedia citation about the play. Seriously. Google “AR Gurney Sylvia” and the first hit is Wikipedia and this ‘quote’ is in the second paragraph. Note to director: dig deeper, please.

The small cast – a quartet of undergrads – do a fine job telling the story of a man in search of his midlife crisis, his career-focused wife, and the stray dog who comes between them. The fourth actor has a hoot of a time flipping between three characters who are male, female, and decidedly binary. Julia Miskines is adorable as Sylvia, cocking her head just so, frisking around, and using words as barks and whimpers to communicate her love for Greg, disdain for Kate, and her everyday doggy needs. She’s expressive and funny as heck. Andrew Salamone as Greg is fine in the role intended to be bland. Ditto Isabel Merkel as Kate the spurned-for-fur wife. Justin Durrett is Tom the pal from the dog park who later dons a dress as Phyllis Kate’s snooty friend (Sylvia gives a dog’s highest endorsement to this one), and Leslie the androgynous-by-design therapist.  This gives Durrett a nice stretch as an actor, particularly since he’s a mere freshman.  He’s the one to watch. The tech crew did fine work, costumes were spot on, and the over-all look of the show was just fine.

A major distraction was the use of stage crew as improv comedy devices. They roamed the stage to give it a soft opening, posing as dog wardens searching for a stray. They were mercifully not miced up, so their comments were sotto voce and limited. They had a loud cheering section in the audience; this peanut gallery whooped and hollered every time they performed their real tasks changing out set pieces. Yeah, I know; they’re students who want to support and appreciate their friends. And it was a Friday night on a college campus. But actors take their roles and their craft seriously; be there, be supportive, show appreciation, but carrying on like you’re at a little league game makes you an annoying audience member. 

Supporting student productions is essential to help build the next generation of artists: for that, I will keep going back.

Sylvia pants along for two hours with 15-minutes to take yourself for a walk. It runs for three performances on  Feb. 28-29; details at