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American theater’s foremost vivisectionist of patrician New England WASP culture, A.R. Gurney, had a serious case of the cutes with his fluffy 1995 comedy, Sylvia. Taking a sentimental view of one man’s midlife crisis via his all-consuming love for a canine companion that chews holes in his 22-year marriage, the play gets bright and shiny presentation in this first Broadway production, headed by Matthew Broderick as straight man to the eponymous labradoodle, played by 2015 Tony winner Annaleigh Ashford. Dog owners in the audience are identifiable by their guffaws over every recognizable mutt mannerism, but there’s enough meat here to sustain a half-hour playlet at best, in an overstretched conceit that runs an interminable two hours-plus.
Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs as much as the next person. When Ashford enters the elegant Manhattan apartment of Greg (Broderick) and his English teacher wife Kate (a miscast Julie White), it’s impossible not to be charmed by the anthropomorphized pooch. She bounds around and over furniture, gamboling with uncontainable delight in her new home, sniffing every inch of the place and dragging her butt across the carpet while panting with the urgency of finding adequate ways to express her unquestioning adoration. The writing, direction and performance could only have come from years of doggy devotion.
Ann Roth’s clever costume adds to the captivating intro, outfitting Ashford in a shaggy sweater, denim cutoffs over chestnut velvet cycle shorts, fur cuffs on her hands and feet and blond tresses pulled into a topknot. And knee pads. It’s all too adorable. Really.
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The establishing scenes are quite engaging as Greg patiently tries to settle Sylvia into something approaching manageable calm in preparation for what he correctly assumes will be the unenthused reaction of Kate when she returns to find that he’s brought home a stray from the park. The two-way dialogue between the dog and her new owner will be funny and relatable to anyone whose closeness to his or her pet has ever seemed to cross into Doctor Dolittle territory. And Sylvia’s “Hey! Hey! Hey!” bark is a hoot. But once the rambunctious dog impersonation has worked its initial magic, it soon becomes apparent that the play is a very shallow bowl of kibble.
Setting Sylvia in 1995, during the Clinton administration, Gurney uses Greg’s discovery of the joys of dog ownership to depict his growing distance from late-20th century capitalism and his urge to re-enter the world of the living by getting closer to nature. The playwright also tosses in parallels to the divide between male and female, Republican and Democrat, straight and gay, even binary and non-binary gender. But ultimately, the play is just another twist on the same old prickly triangle of a man, his wife and his mistress.
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Having sent the last of their kids off to college, Kate is now exploring her own late-blooming career path, developing a program to teach Shakespeare to students in inner-city junior high schools. The couple has only recently moved to the city, and the last thing she wants is a dog to take care of or to occupy all of her husband’s attention. But Greg is too besotted to hear her, ignoring her concerns and the potential economic instability caused by his new laissez-faire attitude to his own job. He’s a gratingly selfish central character. What’s more, his unsettled state never registers as genuine conflict in Broderick’s default performance mode — affectless, monotone delivery; dead-eyed vacant look; sluggish physicality. Instead, we get a dull man-child whose fixation on his dog, to the exclusion of all else, is simply corny. Until it becomes creepy.
Director Daniel Sullivan is nothing if not an accomplished technician, so he handles all this with polish — if not always the most exceptional comic timing. The design is also spiffy, notably David Rockwell’s set, with compact interiors that glide into a picture-book frame representing leafy Central Park against the Western skyline.
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However, the play’s only real pulse comes from the frisky performance of Ashford (Masters of Sex) in a role originated by Broderick’s wife, Sarah Jessica Parker. Whether tilting her head in a coy facsimile of shame when a puddle of pee is discovered in the living room, flying into a profanity-spewing rage at the sight of a cat or assuming a posture of abject defeat after being spayed and subjected to the humiliation of a protective cone collar, Ashford’s Sylvia is a witty comic turn. But a comic turn is all it is — not part of any truly compelling dramatic scenario.
Another kind of energy at least is introduced by Robert Sella, who appears as three different caricatures, all of which wear thin. He plays Tom, a fellow dog lover who muses with Greg in the park about the unique bond with man’s best friend and the threat that exclusive club can become for wives; Leslie, an androgynous marriage counselor; and Phyllis, an old Vassar pal of Kate’s who has become an Upper East Side socialite. Casting a man in the latter role presumably allows for the slapstick crotch-sniffing gag to be played to death without being offensive. Many of the jokes are either pushed too hard or dragged out for too long. Tom’s puffed-up masculine pride as he lights a cigarette after his dog finishes mounting Sylvia is just gross, while Sylvia singing Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” alone at home on the couch, echoed first by Greg and then Kate, would have been funnier as a quick throwaway.
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The second-act power struggle between the desperate Kate and Sylvia, smug in her certainty of Greg’s affections, becomes more irritating than amusing. It doesn’t help that White, whose comedic forte is brash and barbed, seems muted in a role that calls for the WASPy dryness of a Christine Baranski-type. (Blythe Danner played the part in 1995.)
What makes the one-dimensional play even more annoying, however, is its questionable sexual politics. While Greg eventually wakes up enough to make a sacrifice, it’s long-suffering, loving Kate who ultimately compromises and then undergoes a complete turnaround in the sappy final stretch. To make matters worse, the natural conclusion is followed by an unnecessary coda that goes on to spell out the obvious, turning it into pure schmaltz. No one would blame even the most nonmilitant feminist from snarling both at self-absorbed Greg and his manipulative bitch.
Cast: Matthew Broderick, Julie White, Annaleigh Ashford, Robert Sella
Director: Daniel Sullivan
Playwright: A.R. Gurney
Set designer: David Rockwell
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Music: Greg Pliska
Sound designer: Peter Fitzgerald
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Daryl Roth, Brannon Wiles, Jay & Cindy Gutterman/Caiola Productions, Lang Entertainment Group/Big Beach, Louise Gund, Kathleen K. Johnson, Joan Raffe & Jhett Tolentino, Jane Bergere, Stewart F. Lane & Bonnie Comley, Bellanca Smigel Rutter, Deborah Taylor, Freitag-deRoy, Jessica Genick, Will Trice
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