Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy
@ Kennedy Theater, Progress Energy Center
Through June 28

There’s an old axiom in the theater about dogs: If you put one on stage, the audience won’t watch anything else. Dogs are the ultimate upstagers.

In Sylvia, the playwright A. R. Gurney subjects the dog-onstage gimmick to a clever conceit: There’s a pooch on the set, but she’s played by a human being.

Greg (Adam Twiss) is a midlife-crisis-aged man who finds a stray mutt (Lisa Jolley) in the park and, smitten, brings her home. His uptight wife, Kate (Cassandra Vallery), isn’t happy about it at allshe’s the real bitch here, not the dog, we soon discoverand it isn’t long before Sylvia is not only housebroken but home-wrecking.

Indeed, Greg is soon conducting an affair in all but conjugal deed with his adoring other woman, sneaking out with her for moonlit walks and feeling young and hopeful again, thanks to Sylvia’s puppy love. Gurney’s dramaturgical stroke here is to give Sylvia the gift of human speech so that she can converse with the other characters. She walks like a human, talks like a human and dresses like a human, but Gurney takes care to remind us often and wittily that she’s still a dog. (“I have to check my messages,” she says, sniffing the ground.)

And what sort of dog is she? Spunky, streetwise, brassy, lovable and loving. As Sylvia, Lisa Jolley throws herself around the stage and all over the furniture and humans that Kate fecklessly orders her to stay off of. Along with Robbie Gay, who gleefully plays three summer-campy rolesa man, a woman and someone deliberately in betweenJolley does what an actual dog would do: She upstages her masters, running canine roughshod over Twiss and Vallery’s tidily manicured performances.

That imbalance is obviously intentional: a pair of straight foils (Greg and Kate) for the broad comedy of two wags. You don’t see actors bring down the house much anymore unless they’re singing (which doesn’t quite happen after the one song that is sung in Sylvia), but Jolley did it on opening night with a profane, bravura articulation of what dogs really think of cats.

Speaking of profane, Sylvia is a light romp, perfectly suited to a series like Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy, but it is a more subversive play than this frolicking production makes it appear. Not only does Gurney take the deeply politically incorrect risk of having a woman play a dog, but he unleashes her, and her fleas, on her masters’ (and her audience’s) conservative environment. The playwright trails enough cluesespecially in his pointed deployment of the triple-roled fourth actorfor us to pick up the scent of something rotten in the state of the Upper East Side: the unnerving presence not merely of bestiality but also of homo- and transsexuality, even an anxious whiff of Semitic miscegenation. With this production, it’s possible to react to all that pungent stuff in the theater the way you wish you could to the mess a dog makes in the living room: by pretending it isn’t there.