A.R. Gurney’s “Sylvia” opens on Broadway at The Cort Theatre this week. Directed by Daniel Sullivan, the cast includes Matthew Broderick, Julie White, Annaleigh Ashford and Robert Sella. The revival was previously staged in 1995 at The Manhattan Theatre Club.
Greg (Matthew Broderick) is disillusioned by his career, trudging thru a mid-life crisis and on the brink of being let go from his company. He and his wife Kate (Julie White) leave the suburbs and return to their apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The couple is at a crossroads between the empty nest syndrome and forging into their golden years — they are conflicted with the passing of time and their faltering marriage.
With more reasons to avoid work than you can throw a stick at, Greg ends up at a dog-run in Central Park where he finds and picks up a stray pup named Sylvia (Annaleigh Ashford). He brings the adorable, blonde pooch home to Kate. The addition of the female canine creates a tumultuous ménage à trois; a fluffy wedge is thrust into the relationship of husband, wife and man’s best friend.
The unconditional love and admiration of Sylvia towards her master becomes intoxicating. Greg changes his daily routine, he plays hooky from work to spend more time with the dog; it slowly turns into an obsession. Kate takes an immediate dislike to Sylvia and grasps at anything to get rid of the new house pet. The two females figuratively go fisticuffs (hand to paw) in a battle over territory, attention and Greg’s admiration.
Enter Tom (Robert Sella), an alpha male with an alpha dog who meets Greg in Central Park on occasion and always offers ridiculous pet advice. His recommendations fall short on a very long leash.
After a visit from a college friend Phyllis (Sella), Kate is determined to get their lives back in order; she accepts a job teaching in England and informs Greg that the UK has a timely quarantine on pets and Sylvia must stay, in other words, no go. They seek out counseling with the sexually ambiguous Leslie (Sella), who also encourages putting Sylvia down.
In the end, things turn out fine for man and woman but not so much for beast.
Matthew Broderick as Greg, effortlessly captures the character’s upper middle-class proclivities and paunch like the comfort of an old shoe, a flannel shirt or favorite cardigan. He keeps his rage internalized and projects his struggle as a disposable corporate cog with carefree adoration towards Sylvia. He pacifies himself with the simple things in life such as a walk in the park and a dog’s adoration and desire to please are his chew toys.
Julie White’s Kate is the epitome of an Upper West Side woman. She is ambitious, determined, frustrated and ready to take action. Gurney layers the character with Protestant behaviors and peccadilloes; White keeps them all in check until she has a glass of wine or two. Belly laughs ensue.
Robert Sella takes on three roles in Sylvia: Tom, Phyllis and Leslie. These characters are a little disjointed from the triangle of Greg, Kate and Sylvia and only contribute to the plot with several humorous scenes. His most notable performances are in drag as Kate’s college chum Phyllis and the sexually unidentifiable therapist, Leslie. The interaction between Phyllis and the bombastic, rambunctious and innocently uncouth Sylvia is side splitting.
The show belongs to Sylvia, convincingly portrayed by Annaleigh Ashford. From the minute she takes the stage, you can’t help but want to adopt, pet and care for her; like all demanding canines, you also want her to take a long weekend sabbatical in the nearest pound. Ashford’s Sylvia is the personification of man’s best friend — adorable, naughty, randy and silly, she repetitiously captures the character’s yappy shrill with three words: “Hey, hey, hey!” When she is not on stage, you miss her.
In one scene, Greg takes Kate to the airport for one of her speaking engagement business trips. Sylvia is left in the apartment alone. The trio breaks into Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye (I Die a Little).” It is one of the zaniest and hilarious renditions of the song that I’ve had the pleasure to witness.
Some might say the premise is misogynistic if not blatantly sexist casting an actress in the role of a dog. I don’t believe that is A.R. Gurney’s intentions. The play is not exactly about a dog. It’s more complex and delves into human relationships, aging, behaviors and stereotypes. At its core, it focuses on Homo sapiens and how we interact with each other and project our oft-ridiculous humanness onto the animal kingdom.
Tickets for SYLVIA are priced from $67 – $147 and are now available online at http://www.telecharge.com, by phone at (212) 239-6200, or in-person at the Cort Theatre box office (138 W. 48th St.).
Rush tickets are available on specific days.
Photos: Joan Marcus