December 2, 2015

"Sylvia" Gets Sent to the Pound Prematurely

New Yorkers are crazy about their dogs. And so I had assumed that the canine crowd would be out in full force at the Cort Theatre to see the Broadway debut of Sylvia, the revival of the 1995 A.R. Gurney comedy about the love affair between a man and his dog. Theater lovers are crazy about Annaleigh Ashford and so I thought a show starring this uncommonly gifted physical comedienne as the eponymous dog would enjoy a long run. But, as it turns out, I was wrong. Last week, just a month after it opened, the producers announced that Sylvia will close on Jan. 3.

Perhaps that's because the show, at least as straight-forwardly directed by Daniel Sullivan, has a lot more in common with Neil Simon's boulevard comedies of the 1960s and '70s than it does with today's edgier laugh fests like Hand to God.

Sylvia is set primarily in the comfortable living room overlooking Central Park of a middle-aged couple named Greg and Kate. Their kids are out of the nest and Kate is excited about all the things she'll now be free to do, from a new job teaching Shakespeare to poor kids to dining out at new restaurants with old friends and maybe even revving up the couple's sex life.

Greg, on the other hand, is fed-up with his job as a bonds salesman and down in the dumps about everything else until he finds a stray dog and brings her home. 

The dog's name tag reads Sylvia and the play's conceit is that she can speak what's on her mind. When Greg commands her to sit, she replies, "I don't want to sit" and proceeds to run around the apartment, jumping on the couch and peeing on the rug, which doesn't endear her to Kate, who also begins to resent the tightening relationship between Greg and Sylvia.

There is, as you might expect, a metaphor here about what can happen to long-married couples when their primary focus switches from their now-grown kids back to one another.

But neither Gurney, who has admitted in interviews that the play was inspired by the relationship he had with his late dog Lucy, nor Sullivan hit too hard on that. The fun of the play rests in imagining how it would be to be able to relate to one's own pet so directly and watching an actress find inventive ways to mimic doggie behavior.

Ashford, dressed by costumer Ann Roth in a shaggy sweater and knee pads to protect her joints as she bounces around David Rockwell's perhaps too lovely set, is great at the job. She combines the expressive eyes and eager-to-please friskiness of a young puppy with the anything-for-a-laugh moxie of an old vaudevillian. The result is something pretty close to brilliant.

The 30-year-old actress won a well-deserved Tony last spring for managing to outshine a constellation of comic geniuses in the all-star revival of You Can't Take It With You and even though the current theater season is still young and Sylvia is closing early, Ashford deserves to be in the awards mix again this time around (click here to read an interview with her).

Julie White, who posses her own well-toned comedic chops, is given less to work with as the disapproving Kate but keeps the role from being annoying. Meanwhile Matthew Broderick, whose wife Sarah Jessica Parker originated the role of Sylvia in the '95 production, does a surprisingly good job as Greg.

Broderick has turned in one disappointingly affectless performance after another since he and Nathan Lane re-energized Broadway with The Producers back at the turn of the century. But his deadpan approach works here for the emotionally conflicted Greg. And he seems genuinely amused by and connected to Ashford's Sylvia.

Three other minor characters, including a sexually ambiguous shrink, are all hilariously—even if a bit over the top—portrayed by Robert Stella, who deserves his own awards consideration (click here to read an interview with the entire cast).

The critics were mixed about the show, with some accusing it of being anti-feminist since one woman is playing a dog and the other something of a nag. But the people who have gone to see Sylvia seem to be having a good time, based on the laughter at the performance my husband K and I attended and the high favorable ratings the show has received on the new review aggregator Show-Score (click here to read some of what they had to say).

In fact, K liked the show so much that he bought tickets as a Christmas present for one of our animal-loving friends. Luckily, he chose a date before Sylvia barks its last on Jan. 3.

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