We gave it a B
Genre: Play; Starring: Annaleigh Ashford, Matthew Broderick, Julie White; Director: Daniel Sullivan; Author: A.R. Gurney; Opening Date: Oct. 27, 2015
It’s easy to grump your way through Sylvia, A.R. Gurney’s 1995 comedy about a man, his wife, and the new dog that threatens to divide them. But just as quickly as a puppy can forget its mission du jour (be it bone or ball), so can a cynical audience member dither between delight and dismay at a 125-minute play about a man’s mutt-borne midlife-crisis. Eventually, the dog wears you down.
In Sylvia’s first romp on Broadway, the titular hound is played by Annaleigh Ashford, exercising the same spastic motions and wandering intonations of speech she memorably exhibited in her Tony-winning turn last year in You Can’t Take It With You. Ashford is no one-trick canine, but those now-signature performance quirks (which she also displayed in Kinky Boots) lend themselves to the spontaneous, indecisive, and rambling nature of Sylvia, whom Ashford plays with thoughtfulness and teenage vacuity somewhere between Snoopy and Kesha. With director Daniel Sullivan’s license, Ashford is spry and spasmodic in channeling the animal’s feral energy. Eventually, the physical half of the big “joke” — that is, human playing dog in earnest — wears thin, but Ashford rescues herself from her own plateaus with bursts of sudden enthusiasm (Sylvia’s listless barks of “Hey, hey, hey!” are a frequent highlight). At the same time, remember that this is a role that draws its biggest audience laugh from Ashford dragging her backside across the floor. Therein defines your enjoyment of Sylvia.
Matthew Broderick, playing a man in midlife crisis who focuses his aimlessness on his new stray, is strangely perfect for Greg — although that may not be a winning endorsement. Broderick gives the same pathos-less performance he’s been offering since 2012’s Nice Work If You Can Get It, a sleepy stroll that fits with Greg’s stubborn, oblivious, and altogether aggravating lack of awareness. (Wholly unrelated but worth a trivial mention here: Broderick’s wife, Sarah Jessica Parker, originated the role of Sylvia Off Broadway.) Julie White, as Kate, Greg’s empty-nester wife eager to begin a dogless next chapter, is in expectedly fine form, overcoming the role’s negativity to wring comedy from its limiting material. Kate is the antagonism between man and dog, but White easily has you rooting for her to kick the title character to the curb.
The surprise standout here is the indispensible Robert Sella, playing multiple pivotal roles informing Greg and Kate in their strained marriage. Sella doesn’t steal each scene — to wit, how can one steal what one owns? He is a kinetic ball of comic motion, and his nonstop birr is make-or-break for the entire production. Fortunately, the verdict rests with the former. Even to the most pessimistic, Sylvia is innocuous and zippy, surprisingly foul-mouthed, and perhaps the very definition of disarmingly funny (with a literal last-minute ending that offers one final attempt to convert the cranky with a key set of puppy-dog eyes). B