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"If, at the end of the play, one person turns to their mate and says, 'Honey, let's get a dog,' I have done my job," says Stephanie Zimbalist, who plays the adorable, coquettish canine Sylvia in A.R. Gurney's romantic comedy of the same name, currently at the Coronet Theatre.
As the scruffy stray who becomes the "other woman," disrupting the marriage of Greg (Charles Kimbrough) and Kate (Mary Beth Peil), Zimbalist sheds the sophisticated image for which she is known. Dressed in costumes that range from the rangy rags of a stray to a cleaned-up poodle-ish tutu, she rolls over, scratches fleas, sniffs, goes into heat, leaps on the couch and gives doggy kisses with gleeful abandon.
"I am having a fabulous time," says the down-to-earth 40-year-old actress, best known as the star of the 1982-87 series "Remington Steele," as well as for countless TV movies ("The Gathering," "Caroline?") and theatrical productions ("The Baby Dance," "Ad Wars," "Festival").
"I suppose if I ever saw exactly what I was doing," she adds, smiling, "I would be embarrassed or mortified."
Zimbalist saw the off-Broadway production of "Sylvia" two years ago, although she missed seeing its original stars, Kimbrough and Sarah Jessica Parker.
"I just loved it," recalls the daughter of veteran actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr. over lunch at a Toluca Lake eatery. "But my immediate reaction was that wasn't my dog up there. I want my dog up there. I understand that various Sylvias have played the street more. I wanted to play the energy of the dog. But the thing I love about dogs and animals is their unconditional love. I try to play that with the wife, because a dog gives a human being a number of chances."
"She's wonderful, I love working with Stephanie," says Kimbrough, adding that Parker's and Zimbalist's dogs are two "entirely different creatures behaviorally. Stephanie is more intense. Sarah Jessica was a strawberry blond with her hair all over the place kind of dog and Stephanie is a dark, brunet dog. She has emphasized more the soulful, serious side of the character, not to the determent of the laughs. Sarah Jessica was more sort of a street kid kind of dog. They are both wonderful to work with."
Early last year, Zimbalist was set to do a national tour of "Sylvia" with Ken Howard. "The word was that a lot of theaters, believe it or not, didn't know Gurney (who writes plays about upper-crust archetypes, among them "The Middle Ages," "The Dining Room") and they didn't know "Sylvia". So when they saw the script, they saw the swear words and went, 'Whoops. Not for our audience.' So the tour was canceled."
Then last spring, Zimbalist was approached to do a three-city summer tour on the East Coast. She jumped at the chance, but nearly canceled after her dog, Dippy, died.
Opening her purse, Zimbalist shows a small photo album containing pictures of Dippy, an adorable white furry mutt. Her "precious angel dog" had been rescued off the streets by Zimbalist's mother 10 years ago. "My mother had her for five years," the actress says. "When I came back from [the New York production of] 'Baby Dance,' I said, 'I have to have a dog.' I'd had another dog named Clarence, and he had been dead for many years."
She opens her wallet and takes out of a picture of Clarence, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Dippy.
"My mother gave me Dippy, and she became my child, my constant companion--50 airplane rides," she says with much affection. "Every location. She was a great ambassador of the heart."
But on the morning of June 13, Zimbalist discovered Dippy in the backyard of her Encino home, the victim of a coyote attack. "I ran out past the pool and there was my angel ripped open from the neck all the way to her tail, lying like she was asleep. I saw her last breath."
Zimbalist says she "just lost it." She called her agent the next day and told him she didn't think she could do the play. But for the next two weeks, Zimbalist says, she prayed and wrote in her journal about the experience.
"It came to me that Dippy wanted me to do this part. So yes, it's a comedy. Yes, it's a romantic comedy. But my first mission in this play is to honor what Mr. Gurney intended. My second, close on the heels of that, is to honor my dog."
Zimbalist pays even further tribute to her pooch in this production. A picture of Sylvia shown at the end of the play is actually Dippy, photographed a year and a half before she died.
"So it's for Dip I do this, and for the doggy nation in general. I've grown up with dogs and love dogs. I think animals in general have a special message."
Zimbalist has signed on to do "Sylvia" for the next three months. "I think every day when I go to the theater, I am doing exactly what I want to do. People come into the theater in whatever mood they are in, and they leave having been completely entertained," she says.
Though she's concentrating more on theater these days, Zimbalist likes to go back and forth between the boards and TV movies. Her latest film, "Prison of Secrets," airs on Lifetime on March 16. In it, she plays a housewife and mother who finds herself sentenced to prison for 10 years.
"For most actors these days, good work is so few and far between," she says. "I look for a character with an arc, so there is a journey that they go on from Point A to Point B. I took this film for the first 10 minutes. She's a person like you or me--a career, family, a dog and suddenly they are in prison. It could happen overnight to anybody and the way it's portrayed absolutely fascinated me."
* "Sylvia," Coronet Theatre, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m., Sundays, 3 p.m.; $25-$42.50. (310) 657-7377.
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