Dog Talk with Matthew Broderick and the Cast of Broadway’s ‘Sylvia’

28 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Sylvia’ on Broadway: Matthew Broderick stars in comedy that’s all bark, no bite.

The play chronicles a middle-aged man’s relationship with a dog, and its stars Matthew Broderick, Julie White and Annaleigh Ashford (playing the dog) are all dog owners. After a star-making supporting turn in Kinky Boots and a Tony-winning stint as a would-be ballerina in You Can’t Take it With You, Ashford finally takes the stage in a lead role.

Anyone who read the program bio for White probably would have guessed she’s a dog person. “It’s basically an obituary for my dog,” she said at the opening night party at Bryant Park Grill. Of course it helps that the show pairs him with the inimitable Annaleigh Ashford, who gives a wonderfully zany performance as the titular dog, a stray that Broderick’s character finds in Central Park. White’s dog is 14 and facing the perils of aging with bravery. “When I go, I want to try to do it like Lulu!” Broderick, meanwhile, comes to “Sylvia” 20 years after his wife, Sarah Jessica Parker, portrayed the dog in the play’s Off Broadway premiere. Ashford makes whomever she’s performing with look good, and it takes a lot to make Broderick look good these days — there should be a special Tony category for that job.

In an innocuous answer to a midlife crisis, he brings Sylvia home, much to the displeasure of his wife, Kate (Julie White), an English teacher who is done with dogs. Maybe, as a cat person — moreover, one who finds having to watch people pick up dog feces on a daily basis one of the more distasteful (albeit necessary) aspects of city living — I am a touch biased. Back in 2001, Broderick starred in one of Broadway’s biggest hits, “The Producers,” where his chemistry with Nathan Lane made them both box-office gold. But in my defense, I will cite the views of Greg’s wife, Kate, played by Julie White, who begins to fear for his sanity when he comes home from Central Park one day with a stray and as the days go by proceeds to shower more affection on the dog than he does on Kate.

But lighting didn’t strike twice — witness 2005’s “The Odd Couple.” Lately, Broderick’s range has been limited to an expression of hangdog bewilderment and mannerisms — every other line gets an upturned inflection, as if the character was slightly surprised for no good reason. It is antiquated, it is self-congratulatory, it is conservative in both form and content with its focus on the non-problems of upper-middle-class white New Yorkers. (Sylvia is white, too, or perhaps golden.) But if you have ever loved a pet, it is almost impossible not to feel moved by the interspecies romance of Greg and Sylvia or to tear up when they sing Every Time We Say Goodbye. (Kate joins in, too.) The schtick of the play is that Greg and Kate, like all pet owners, anthropomorphise their animal. And, indeed, whenever the tireless Ashford is on stage — one moment cursing up a storm at an off-stage cat, the next contriving ways to climb atop Greg and Kate’s furniture — this production strikes just the right balance between sentimental and silly. (The central joke here, that Sylvia is in effect Greg’s new “mistress,” is one Gurney never tires of repeating.) Matthew Broderick and Julie White plays a married couple whose relationship is put to the test when he brings home a dog in A.R. Gurney’s comedy “Sylvia.” Joan Marcus Too often, though, that balance is upended. (This production is directed by Daniel Sullivan, who won the 2001 Tony for “Proof.”) Broderick adopts a puzzling, Ward Cleaver-like affect — as if he’s playing the idea of an American middle age man instead of an actual character. Dressed in a fuzzy sweater, Daisy Dukes, a velour bodysuit, and a collar, her jumble of blond hair spilling to her shoulders, she looks less like a dog than like some bridge-and-tunnel teen on a tear.

We never quite believe his Greg is married to White’s Kate, and so it’s impossible to invest emotionally in the marital crisis Sylvia supposedly causes. The fourth member of the cast, Robert Sella, plays three different characters, male, female and gender-neutral, in scenes that push “Sylvia” confusingly into the realm of camp. A big problem is that he’s often miscast, as in the 2012 musical “Nice Work If You Can Get It”, where he gave “one of the most unappealing performances of the past few years.” But Broderick has the potential to be effective onstage.

But there’s something sunshiny and genuinely irrepressible about her that transcends any species categories. (And which also serves to make Kate seem like a real pill.) How could anyone not love Sylvia? Perhaps hardcore dog owners won’t care about the wobbly tone, or the fact that such a small-scaled show looks a tad adrift on a large Broadway stage — and will instead just lap up (like, er, a puppy with a bowl of milk) Gurney’s admittedly sharp observations about canine behavior. There’s something a little unsettling about his low-boil detachment, and you could imagine him playing one of those churchgoing men who turns out to be a psychopath. Gurney’s comedy rests on this critter acting almost as human as the humans, conversing easily with both the man who dotes on her and the woman who eyes her with frank distaste. White plays Kate as tightly wound, but not entirely unsympathetic and she allows herself a few moments to showcase the daffiness she otherwise keeps buttoned up and belted in.

She acts most indecorously when Kate brings a high-toned friend, Phyllis (Robert Sella, in a drag turn), home for a drink, snuffling at her crotch while burbling (what else?): “Nice crotch here. For more than 10 years now, he has been turning in variations on the same coy performance, employing a curdled, boyish and weirdly artificial voice that he first unveiled (I think) in “The Producers” and now seems to use every time he steps onstage.

Kate’s evolving reaction to Sylvia, which moves from knee-jerk rejection to attempted accommodation to nerve-jangled exasperation and something close to despair, is modulated with fluid expertise. He’s macho-laconic as a fellow dog owner in the park, with whose pet Sylvia engages in a sexual frolic that leaves both men embarrassed and aghast; quite funny as that blue-blooded friend of Kate, whose assault by Sylvia is the cause of much raillery; and amusingly androgynous as the therapist of indeterminate gender whom Greg is eventually coaxed into consulting.

Although Daniel Sullivan shapes the performances nicely, this veteran director doesn’t exactly add to the luster of his long career here; nor does this perfectly respectable production, with handsome sets by David Rockwell, detract from it. Gurney’s more popular plays — the woman-plays-dog conceit probably helps — feels tediously overextended and repetitive at two hours and two acts. Although it has a certain silly charm, a sweet message about making connections both human and non- and some nicely turned jokes, ultimately the play has all the heft of a teacup poodle.

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