SYLVIA’S REAL GOOD ADVICE
It’s usually no compliment to call a character a cartoon. But sometimes two dimensions are better than three, especially when they’ve been drawn by Nicole Hollander, the stupidity-skewering perpetrator of the popular Sylvia comic strip. Her Sylvia, who combines a witty Andy Rooney with a sloppy Ann Landers, is a chain-smoking culture commentator with a vicious deadpan: armed only with a typewriter and a tub, she regularly settles the world’s problems. Though she’s not always outgoing (“Hi, this is Sylvia–I can’t come to the phone right now so when you hear the beep, hang up”), Sylvia can usually be coaxed–VISA cards accepted–to broadcast her opinions.
Now she’s doing it in three dimensions. Pegasus Players’ smart and crisp Sylvia’s Real Good Advice, a world-premiere musical by Hollander, Arnold Aprill, and Tom Mula with music by Steve Rashid, offers a crash course in Sylviology. This slick and savvy script has been constructed from actual Sylvia panels–some of them may be adorning your refrigerator at this very moment. It chronicles a typical advice-laden day in Sylvia’s life (“24 hours that would kill a normal woman”); the musical is a kind of travelogue through Sylvia’s topsy-turvy world. In deft hit-and-run, vaudeville-sharp scenes, Sylvia makes the rounds of her comic-strip colleagues, promoting her Sylvia Services, “where you can tell everybody what to do and get paid for it.”
Sylvia’s day wouldn’t be complete without some hanging out at Harry’s Bar, where her canasta-playing love interest, Harry, cheers her up by being even more depressed than she is. Elsewhere Sylvia either ignores, advises, or deflates Rita, her terminally trendy, health-nut daughter; Bill, Rita’s blue-collar boyfriend, a dude in mortal terror of being caught showing his feelings; and Clara, a smug package of ego and attitude who agonizes over her flattering “problems.”
Other lucky recipients of Sylvia’s backhanded counsel are her best friend, Beth Anne, so pertly anal-retentive that as a kid she used to cut up crayons before eating them; now she puts slipcovers on her tub and sink. Fred is a whiner who wears his neuroses on his sleeve; Alice, a girl who falls hard for a six-armed alien she met at the Dairy Queen. Myrna is aroused by men who don’t need her. Hilda is the elaborately disturbed, constant victim of three endlessly demanding, never negotiating cats. (When the cats’ sole communications with humans are finally decoded, they consist of two phrases: “Hurry up that dinner, will ya,” and “Everything here is mine.”
Sylvia has two pals who are even less conventional than these others. The Devil is a dweebish fellow with underendowed horns who can’t get no respect even though he did invent–or at least improve on–sex. (At first God made impregnation a matter of thought transference, and nobody was buying it until Satan realized “it had to be fun or dangerous or dirty.”) Resourceful Sylvia gives the Devil a mantra that he geekily repeats: “I am powerful! I am Satan!” This talisman gives him the confidence to come on to–yes!–demure Beth Anne.
Finally there’s Gernif, the green-antennaed visitor from Venus, a planet Sylvia loves because the inhabitants believe that “to be thin is to be disgusting.” Here on Earth gentle Gernif finds himself drawn to lower life forms, like marshmallows.
Pursuing her problem solving pell-mell, Sylvia becomes a Love Cop who busts up bad marriages–in advance. She gives deflating readings from her crystal ball. She even inspires Beth Anne to let down her bun.
Just as Sylvia bounces from one character to another, the manic dialogue caroms from one-liner to comeback to zinger to quip. A world without men? “Lots of fat, happy women and no crime.” Sylvia’s retort to her health-conscious daughter: “Rita, your body may be a temple–mine’s a Chevy Vega.” Or take this superb exchange: A woman implores her date, “Frank, make me feel like a woman!” His reply: “Could you pick up my laundry?” Sylvia trenchantly observes, “Ever wonder why people eat in public and have sex in private?” My favorite was a news bulletin: “Congress today outlawed all abortions except those required to save the life of the doctor.”
Steve Rashid’s show-off score, like his music for The Good Times Are Killing Me, runs a goofy gamut. It includes a sly slam at Evita (“Syl-vi-a! Syl-vi-a!”), a jazzy opening, a tap-dancing duet for Sylvia and Harry, the rock-and-roll rouser “Love Cop,” the ragtime production number “Alien Love,” the Devil’s bluesy lament “White Collar Red Guy With the Blues,” a bebop takeoff on the Andrews Sisters, and the almost predictable gospel finale. The witty lyrics (by Hollander, Aprill, Mula, Rashid, and Cheri Coons) are swollen with a balloon-busting cynicism: “Don’t ask for the moon because you’ll never get it/besides, where’d you put it? It’s big.”
David H. Bell’s picture-perfect staging is as neatly packaged as Pee-wee’s Playhouse; it virtually lifts the strip from the page intact. Thomas M. Ryan’s playful black-and-white sets resemble pop-up pieces from a life-size Sylvia storybook. The kitchen even contains a box of generic “Carbohydrates.” From Sylvia’s anarchic hair to Gernif’s cute antennae, Claudia Boddy’s zestful costumes offer Hollander the sincerest form of flattery: imitation.
If casting is half the show, Sylvia’s Real Good Advice had its first half from day one. Carole Gutierrez is Sylvia right down to her cells: blowsy and curmudgeonly but fortunately minus the cancer sticks. When Gutierrez, a plucky belter, launches Merman-like into her prescription for the perfect death–“Sliding Off a Stool (at Harry’s Bar)”–you know that Sylvia has paid her dues.
Lynn Baber ranges dexterously from Clara’s smarmy complacency to Hilda’s tortured cat phobia. Skip Griparis’s hard-boiled Harry hilariously unbends in his buddy duet with Sylvia. Matthew Greenberg, Allan Louis, and Susan T. Hummon Stevens ogle their way through their duties as the solipsistic felines; and Denise La Grassa as Sylvia’s reformist daughter provides just the kind of soaring uplift Sylvia detests.
The sharpest turns come from John Bonny, in crackerjack dual roles as the underachieving Devil and the cosmically innocent Gernif, and Carolynne Warren as the monumentally repressed Beth Anne. Trying desperately to cut loose, her Beth Anne lurches into “Bad,” the evening’s sidesplitting showstopper; Warren’s attempt at a decorous bump and grind is the funniest stuff since Jane Byrne tried to smile.
Despite the solid satisfaction Sylvia’s Real Good Advice delivers, I’ve got one big gripe. Somebody here made a very commercial choice to eliminate the strip’s politics. If you’re not a regular Sylvia reader, you’d never know from this show how skillfully Hollander savaged Reagan and now skewers Bush. Aside from a brief dig at Oliver North (in a skit about relationships, no less), Pegasus’s Sylvia has been censored. Yeah, I know that satire dates–is that Second City’s new excuse?–which may be one reason why Doonesbury was similarly gutted when it was trivialized into a musical. Still, I’d hoped Sylvia would make it intact to the stage–Bush baiting, Republican bashing, and all. But somebody here actually made Sylvia shut up.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.