Man's best friend takes center stage in 'Sylvia'

A. R. Gurney is one of our most prolific playwrights. At age 85, he has had more than 50 of his plays produced with critical and audience acclaim, almost always in Off-Broadway and regional theaters. His specialty is the depiction of the upper-class WASP family, with its repressed emotions and its imminent doom, on display in works like “The Cocktail Hour,” “Love Letters” and others.
 

This fall a revival of Sylvia finally made it to Broadway. (The play, now showing at the Cort Theatre, first premiered Off-Broadway in 1995.) It takes place in an upscale apartment on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, where the middle-aged Greg (Matthew Broderick) and his wife Kate (Julie White) have moved now that their children have gone off to college. It has been an adjustment from their life in Westchester WASP territory, but they are managing well enough—until Greg comes home one day with a dog who has apparently been abandoned in the park.

The dog, Sylvia, is played hilariously by the new Broadway darling, Annaleigh Ashford, who won a Tony and several other awards in the revival of the classic farce, “You Can’t Take it With You,” last season. Although she walks on two legs instead of four, her disheveled mess of blond hair and some mittens give her a canine appearance and, in place of the usual barking sounds, she shouts, “Hey! Hey,” which, when you think about it, is exactly what a dog is doing in most circumstances.

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Otherwise she expresses herself quite well in human language. True to her canine nature, however, she will do almost anything to get a doggie-treat. She likes to lick people and loves being petted. Her favorite location is the living room couch that Kate forbids her to occupy, which, of course, only makes it more appealing. Perhaps her funniest moment is when, during a walk in the park, she spots a cat who inspires a series of epithets that cannot be printed here. Otherwise, she is quite lovable. Early on she says to Greg, “You know, don’t you, that you are my God.”

Sylvia’s charms, however, are lost on Kate, who correctly sees the pup as a competitor for Greg’s affections. Kate, who teaches courses on Shakespeare at a nearby college, sprinkles her remarks with occasional lines from the Bard, but otherwise serves mainly as a constant antagonist to the Greg-Sylvia relationship. It is a somewhat thankless role for such an accomplished actress, but White’s comic skills finally burst forth in her conversation with a friend, in which Kate almost has a nervous breakdown describing her deep dislike of the dog she calls “Saliva.”

During their walks in the park, Greg and Sylvia often meet up with Tom, a fellow dog-lover. Drawing on wisdom learned from many self-help books, Tom suggests that Greg seems to have a great need to connect with nature and perhaps Sylvia has become his link to the natural world. In fact, Greg is quite dissatisfied with the turn his career has recently taken. As he describes it, when he first worked for the company, he dealt directly with the product. Then a move to the sales department took him away from that hands-on contact. His latest promotion lands him on Wall Street, where he trades the goods as a distant, fleshless commodity.

He begins to take off work regularly to go on walks in the park with Sylvia, a habit that eventually endangers his employment. The set illustrates this conflict beautifully with a panoramic picture-window view of Central Park’s sylvan oasis outside the confines of Greg and Kate’s apartment.

Unfortunately, Matthew Broderick disappoints as Greg, offering the same character he has been playing for the last 10 years. He gave an amazing performance in “The Producers” a dozen years ago as Leopold Bloom, the introverted accountant who is lured into becoming a Broadway producer. But this persona seems to have taken over several of his stage roles since then, as mild-mannered Felix Unger in a revival of “The Odd Couple”; as a tepid middle-aged bon vivant in the Gershwin-tribute musical, “Nice Work If You Can Get It”; and then as the least interesting person in a room full of neurotics in the otherwise hilarious farce, “It’s Only a Play.”

His every sentence begins on a mild note, then raises its pitch and then drops down to mildness again, no matter what he is expressing. Nobody, however, can play cluelessness as well as Broderick, and as Sylvia’s love-object, Greg seems totally unaware of the many ramifications of this unorthodox relationship.

While Broderick, Ashford and White have all won Tony Awards, the lesser-known Robert Sella is equally delightful in his trio of plum roles: Tom, the book reader that Greg and Sylvia meet up with regularly in the park; Phyllis, the close friend of Kate who witnesses Kate’s near breakdown and leaves abruptly when Sylvia gets a bit too friendly; and Leslie, the androgynous therapist who loses all professionalism in his session with Greg. Sella inhabits each of these characters fully and hilariously.    

Interestingly, this very popular play was almost not produced at all. When it was first presented to producers 20 years ago, some of them balked at the prospect of a woman portraying a dog, seeing it as demeaning and misogynistic. Perhaps it can be seen that way. But in her first incarnation by Sarah Jessica Parker in 1995 and now by Annaleigh Ashford, Sylvia comes across as her own woman, bursting with energy, capable of fierce anger (those cats!), major lust (that beautiful hunk of a hound in the park), a certain dignity (she really dislikes having to “roll over” on command) and assertiveness (sneaking onto that couch whenever Kate is not around.)

But most of all, it is her total devotion to her master that, like most of her fellow canines, makes her irresistibly lovable. This play is just as irresistible. 

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