Story: Empty-nester Greg shows up in his posh Manhattan apartment one day with an affectionate and rambunctious new friend, a canine named Sylvia. He found her in the park, he says to his unimpressed wife Kate, and took an instant shining to the mixed-breed whose name tag reveals her name.

For whatever reason, Greg is convinced that Sylvia no longer has a home and so he wants to adopt her. Kate has never been a dog lover and certainly not now while she’s working on a master’s degree in English after years of raising their children. She has a burgeoning career and an apartment in the city after a former life in the suburbs, and she’s very happy with that, thank you.

Greg, on the other hand, is less than thrilled with his job. Once upon a time he enjoyed it quite a bit, but now he’s in a position which he finds less than fulfilling. He’s only too eager to duck out of work any and every day and take a stroll in the park, which is how he found Sylvia.

The dog dearly loves her new master, although she has a fierce streak of independence. Sylvia is annoyed that Kate won’t cotton to her but is always plenty pleased when Greg dotes on her. She’s especially taken with a male dog named Bowzer, at the city park, where Bowzer’s owner Tom advises Greg to get Sylvia fixed but only after she’s “experienced” being female.

Greg’s obsession with Sylvia and his indifference with his job ring alarm bells in Kate, who sees the mutt as a threat to her 23-year marriage. After noticing the stressful reaction of her friend Phyllis to the rowdy, unrestrained Sylvia, Kate coaxes Greg into a marriage counseling session with an eccentric professional named Leslie.

Leslie’s visceral and negative response to Greg’s infatuation with his four-legged friend only accentuates Kate’s insistence that Sylvia hit the road. When Kate is offered a grant to study abroad in England, she informs Greg that there is a six-month quarantine against bringing pets across the pond.

Kate lays down the law with Greg: Either join her in England for the chance of a lifetime or stay behind in New York City with Sylvia and suffer the consequences. That’s an easy decision for Greg to make, right? Or is it?

Highlights: Director Gary Bell and his cast treat their audience to a funny and also thoughtful presentation of A.R. Gurney’s heartwarming comedy about life with man’s best friend and what’s truly important.

Other Info: Memories of past productions of Sylvia for me recalled primarily the show’s comic elements, which are certainly abundant throughout its two acts and two and a half hours of running time. Bell’s careful attention to detail, though, reveals so much more in Gurney’s script which addresses mid-life crises and the desire to connect, not necessarily with other people.

Miles Bledsoe’s scenic design features a smart, ‘board’ background of the New York City skyline as well as indications of the upper-middle-class couple’s swanky Manhattan abode. Lighting designer Tyler Duenow handsomely illuminates both that background as well as the front of the stage, where most of the show occurs.

Bell’s costume design cleverly ranges from Tom’s working-class duds to Kate’s stylish attire and the truly vulgar wardrobe fancied by Leslie, whose garish taste in clothes seems to be the character’s biggest problem.

Susie Lawrence is completely convincing as the four-legged title character, as her Sylvia runs the gamut of emotions any dog lover will appreciate. Her manic energy and capricious moods enhance both Sylvia’s needs and loyalty as well as her own sometimes selfish interests.

Tim Naegelin is touching in his portrayal of the gentle Greg, who understands his wife’s frustrations and yet can’t help himself under the adoring eyes of his newfound pal. Likewise, Kay Love depicts both the exasperation and concern of Kate, who believes she’s in a ‘dog fight’ for her mate of more than 20 years and not willing to give up, neither her marriage nor the career she’s worked so hard to achieve.

Melissa Harlow sparkles in the comedy’s three minor roles, as gruff dog lover Tom, booze-loving socialite Phyllis and meandering counselor Leslie, running with the comic potential in each part.

It’s fitting that a company with the moniker Stray Dog Theatre should stage such a heart-warming and thoughtful rendition of Gurney’s affectionate tribute to our canine companions. Bell’s devoted direction makes this Sylvia a fine dog, indeed.

Play: Sylvia

Company: Stray Dog Theatre

Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue

Dates: June 13, 14, 15, 16, 20, 21, 22

Tickets: $25-$30; contact 865-1995 or www.StrayDogTheatre.org.

Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of John Lamb