by Samuel L. Leiter
We all know people who relate to dogs as if they were people, and how, to the non-canine obsessed such behavior can be maddening. Something like this is depicted in A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia, now being revived under Daniel Sullivan’s crisp direction at the Cort Theatre. Sylvia may be a play for grownups but it’s built around a childlike premise.
The grownup part concerns Greg (Matthew Broderick), who’s going through a midlife crisis, falls for a stray dog named Sylvia, and springs it on his unsuspecting wife, Kate (Julie White), when he brings it home to his apartment overlooking Central Park. Kate wants no part of Sylvia, not because she hates dogs but because now that the kids are off to college, she craves the chance to savor her freedom and her work teaching Shakespeare to inner city teens. Greg, though, is depressed about his meaningless job and needs something exciting to jolt him back to life. To keep Sylvia or not to keep, that is the question.
The childlike part is that Sylvia is played by an adorable, kneepad-wearing actress (Annaleigh Ashford) dressed in casually sexy clothes, her blonde hair in floppy pigtails suggesting doggy ears; she’s also able to talk—separately—with Greg and Kate (she goes “Hey, hey, hey” for barks). She romps around, sheds on the furniture, rubs her itchy butt on the floor, goes into heat, shouts filthy insults at a cat, pees behind an armchair, rolls over on command, and doggedly does all those doggy things we expect. Many men wanted to put a leash on Sarah Jessica Parker when she created the role in the 1995 Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off Broadway production, and many more will feel the same about the delectably hilarious Ashford (a Tony winner for You Can’t Take It with You).
Amiable as much of Sylvia is, it never goes much beyond its one-joke conceit, even with its scenes featuring three secondary characters played by Robert Sella: these are Tom, whose “studly” dog hooks up with Sylvia when Greg brings her to the park; Phyllis, a wealthy friend of Kate’s, whose crotch smell Sylvia can’t get enough of; and Leslie, a therapist of indeterminate gender who advises Greg when his Sylvia mania gets out of hand. Sella gets applause, but he’s so campy that even Sylvia looks believable by comparison.
David Rockwell’s pretty set combines a background of Central Park, with its familiar apartment house skyline, a flown-in wall with a huge window for Greg and Kate’s apartment (which suggests they’re far wealthier than the dialogue indicates), and a roll-on insert for the therapist’s office. Ann Roth’s costumes for Sylvia are appropriately cute, and Japhy Weideman’s lighting offers suitably atmospheric touches.
Ashford’s lovable, mischievous bitch (in both senses of the word) is the chief reason to see Sylvia, although White is wonderfully honest and comic. Broderick, however, floats along on a single, rather monotonous note of colorless abstraction. A highlight, though, is when all three join in a rendition of Cole Porter’s “Every Time You Say Goodbye.” If only the play were as sturdy as Porter’s tune.
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Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).