In the spring of 2020, the cast and crew of the Hampton Theatre Company (HTC) was in the midst of tech week and preparing to open the company’s latest production — A.R. Gurney’s 1995 comedy “Sylvia” — when COVID-19 hit, and the whole world faded to black.
“We thought we would do the show in June, then it was September, then March — and we couldn’t do it in March,” recalled Andrew Botsford, president of the HTC board. “Then things looked better in April and finally we said ‘We’ll do it.’”
And do it they will when HTC’s long-delayed production of “Sylvia” opens for a three weekend run in front of a live audience at Quogue Community Hall on May 27, making it the first indoor theatrical production on the East End in more than a year.
“It’s crazy getting this show up a year later. It’s been 14 months,” said Botsford.
As vaccination numbers rise and COVID-19 infections drop, the rules on the number of audience members permitted at indoor venues is ever-changing. But to be on the safe side of things, HTC is adhering to 33 percent capacity with social distancing.
“We’re going with 60 people maximum,” said Botsford, adding that shows are general admission with the HTC staff spacing parties out appropriately once all groups of tickets have been sold.
While HTC could have easily followed the lead of Broadway, which is expected to resume productions sometime this fall, by waiting to present “Sylvia” once things fully open up, Botsford notes there was an entirely practical reason the decision was made to go ahead with the show now, even if it does play to smaller audiences.
“If we don’t do it, we’ll have to tear the set down,” he explained, noting that the summer junior theater program will soon move in to Quogue Community Hall, at which point, the set will have to go. “We would’ve built it at great expense and not been able to use it.”
Though Botsford admits that with a maximum of 60 audience members per show, HTC isn’t likely to see a profit for this production (a normal, full capacity HTC audience is 180), he realizes that for theater fans in the community, it’s important to get back on the stage.
“So far, so good, given all the safety protocols and we’re selling tickets really well,” he said, adding that in order to make up for the limited audience size, two Saturday matinées have been added to the run.
“We’re dying to do a live show because the Zoom thing is not working out,” said Botsford who, come fall, is hoping to be able to resume with a full line-up of HTC productions. “Everybody’s ready. Our cast of four are all fully vaccinated and everyone backstage has been vaccinated, and they’re all more than 8 feet away from the first audience members.”
For HTC’s artistic director Diana Marbury, who is directing “Sylvia,” the show was literally about to go on when the hiatus was called as COVID-19 began showing up throughout the United States.
“It was March, and when we stopped this, it was a two week situation. Then it got longer,” said Marbury. “We met to keep the thing living because we kept hoping any minute.”
But that minute never came, and theaters from coast to coast remained shut down throughout 2020.
“All my actors were just so in love with the play, it was really hard to put it aside. It was heartbreaking,” she said.
Then, when word came that “Sylvia” would go forward on the HTC stage in late May, Marbury reassembled her cast to pick up where they had left off a year earlier.
“We want to present the best possible show for our audience coming back for the first time in a year,” she said. “We scheduled more rehearsals than we thought we needed and I’m really happy we did. It has made a big difference. We want the production to come off as fully polished.
“Our audiences have been talking about it. They are so happy the theater is back.”
In the process of bringing “Sylvia” back to life, Marbury also found that the long hiatus actually ended up yielding new insight into the play.
“I have found not only did it change, we discovered all kinds of new things that have made it so interesting,” she said. “The show was in fabulous shape last March when we were ready to open and all this time passes and getting back on the horse, there are all sorts of other considerations we didn’t look at before.
“Now, we’re feeling good about it because I think it’s in better shape in the end.”
The story of “Sylvia” in many ways mirrors the reality of many people in the last year who found themselves isolated at home and focused on the family dynamic. Set in a New York City apartment, “Sylvia,” a sassy stray dog (played by a human), is brought home from Central Park by Greg, a middle-aged man who is seeking an escape from the frustrations of his job. But Greg’s wife Kate sees the new canine in their lives as a contender for her husband’s affection, and tensions soon rise as man and dog develop a strong bond.
“There’s so much under it all that makes it so much more interesting than a play just about a man and a dog and a marriage going in the other direction,” Marbury said. “We’ve found poignant and meaningful moments there. Gurney is such a wonderful writer and he makes such astute observations about people.”
Marbury notes that the play is not only about dealing with an empty nest — Greg and Kate have moved into Manhattan from the suburbs — but it also touches on issues of self-esteem and the importance of career as people grow older and often, obsolete.
“The man’s career is wearing thin while the wife’s career is taking off, and he finds this dog in the park — or the dog finds him — and you just have this bone of contention between man and wife,” said Marbury. “He’s finding a great escape and she’s finding an arrival and a lot of resentment.
“The play focuses on the anxieties of a couple in this situation and the enduring value of family,” she added.
The cast of the Hampton Theatre Company revival of “Sylvia” features four HTC veterans: Amanda Griemsmann as Sylvia; Catherine Maloney as Kate; and George Loizides in three different roles. Adding a touch of mystery, HTC has so offered only one clue as to the identity of the actor playing Greg, noting that the role will feature “a familiar HTC face.” Set design is by Sean Marbury; lighting design by Sebastian Paczynski; sound by Seamus Naughton; and costumes by Teresa Lebrun.
Because seating is limited, two additional Saturday matinées have been added to the production schedule. “Sylvia” runs at the Quogue Community Hall, 125 Jessup Avenue, from Friday, May 27, to Sunday, June 13, with performances on Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. For tickets, visit hamptontheatre.org or call the HTC box office at 1-631-653-8955.