Review: ‘Sylvia,’ in Which a Man Loves a Dog Too Much

28 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Sylvia’ review: Matthew Broderick and Annaleigh Ashford in a story of a marriage and a mutt.

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. Gurney’s whimsical but whippet-thin diversion, “Sylvia,” is about marriage and midlife and how man’s best friend can become a woman’s worst enemy. Gurney’s dark drama about a psychopath with tendencies toward bestiality, opened at the Cort Theater on Broadway Tuesday night, with Matthew Broderick playing the nut job, Greg, and Annaleigh Ashford as the title character, a pert little mutt who becomes the object of his obsessive devotion. 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.

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.

Once in the office he proceeds to rhapsodize about Sylvia’s “great little butt.” The gimmick of “Sylvia,” which is indeed a comedy — albeit a trifling one — resides in the casting of an actor as Sylvia. (Sort of fun fact: Sarah Jessica Parker, Mr. But when he takes Sylvia home to their apartment on the Upper West Side, he discovers that Kate wants no part of his existential crisis. “The dog phase of my life is over,” she says, reminding him that she did dog duty when their children were young.

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. Now that the kids are grown and gone, she takes her stand, declaring “I want freedom from dogs.” Gurney has created an amusing and remarkably accurate idiom for translating Sylvia’s doggy language into human speech. (“Hey-hey-hey-hey!” is his clever approximation of Sylvia’s bark.) Ashford does her considerable bit by finding realistic human actions suggestive of doggy behavior. Attaching herself to Greg’s leg and declaring her undying love and loyalty to her lord and master (“My aim in life is to please”), she challenges Kate to pull them apart.

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?

So long as she’s jumping all over the furniture, slobbering all over Greg, and turning Kate’s new shoes into chew-toys, Sylvia is innocently adorable. 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. But as he soon learns, Sylvia is also an animal, with an animal’s embarrassingly primitive instincts that surface when she spots a cat or goes into heat in the park.

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. Robert Sella does triple duty as know-it-all Tom, a sexually ambiguous marriage counselor and one of Kate’s snooty East Side friends — and is swell in all three roles. 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. In helmer Daniel Sullivan’s super-slick production, everybody pitches in to sustain the illusion that the soul of a shaggy dog can live in the shapely body of a gifted comic actress. Ashleigh’s cute costume (by Ann Roth) involves a furry top that matches the actress’s mop of unruly blonde hair. (After a visit to the dog groomer, Sylvia briefly resembles a pampered poodle — and begins speaking French!) And Japhy Weideman’s super-bright lighting design makes it clear that we’re in fantasy land.

Like many a beloved pet, Sylvia is the replacement for a wife like Kate, who is too wrapped up in her own career to notice that her husband desperately needs her. (Bad wife! 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. Down!) A Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Daryl Roth, Brannon Wiles, Jay & Cindy Gutterman / Caiola Productions, Lang Entertainment Group / Big Beach, Louise Gund, Kathleen K. Sets, David Rockwell; costumes, Ann Roth; lighting, Japhy Weideman; sound, Peter Fitzgerald; music, Greg Pliska; wigs & makeup, Campbell Young Associates; production stage manager, James Fitzsimmons.

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. 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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