‘Sylvia’ at The Cort Theatre in New York City

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AR Gurney is the rolling stone playwright that is certainly gathering no moss. As recently as August of this year I reviewed a new Gurney offering, Love and Money which deftly dealt with a matriarch’s difficulties in distributing her estate when she is suddenly confronted by someone claiming to be a relative about whom she knew nothing. Now, in the same theatrical season, we have a revival of one of Gurney’s early successes, Sylvia, directed by Daniel Sullivan, one of several in his oeuvre that has proved popular ever since it first showed up in 1995 when Sarah Jessica Parker scored a big hit in the title role — a character who happens to be a poodle with a questionable genetic background.

Matthew Broderick and Annaleigh Ashford. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Matthew Broderick and Annaleigh Ashford. Photo by Joan Marcus.

It’s a trifle of a play, and its trajectory is simple. A very nice man (played here by Matthew Broderick) cozily married to a very bright woman (in this case Julie White), on a walk through Central Park, finds a stray dog wearing nothing but a collar that reads: “Sylvia.” He feels a great connection to her, and he brings her to his swanky apartment just to get her off the streets, and when no one comes to claim her, he adopts her over the firm objections of his wife, who has no intention of sharing their digs with a dog. But Greg (that’s the husband) prevails, and Sylvia moves in. More accurately, Sylvia takes over, breaking all the rules imposed by Kate (the wife) virtually every day. Jumping on, and eventually virtually living on the expensive sofa, barking whenever anyone outside the immediate family appears, even proving that though technically house broken, she chooses when and where to control herself.

The only other characters who share the stage are a local dog owner who spends a lot of his life in Central Park with his very large pet. The same excellent character actor (Robert Sella) plays a lady friend of Kate’s in one of the play’s funniest scenes, and again appears as the androgynous Leslie who figures professionally (and amusingly) in Kate’s business life. Sella is so good in all three roles that he was rewarded with co-star equal billing with his three fellow players, who are each more established than he.

Which brings me to Sylvia herself, now in the extraordinarily capable hands of Ms. Annaleigh Ashford, who’s been vying for our attention for quite a while before finally getting it two seasons ago in Kinky Boots, in which with only one song, she loudly announced “I am here, and I am telling you I am not going!” – or words to that effect. She won a Clarence Derwent Award in that one, and then a Tony Award by practically stealing the revival of You Can’t Take It With You from a handful of marvelous veterans like James Earl Jones, Elizabeth Ashley, Kristin Nielson, and several others. She played “Essie,” the daughter obsessed with ballet, and proved herself a brilliant exponent of physical and verbal comedy.

As Sylvia, she now has come up with another highly original take on a frisky female pup. When cast properly, that little doggie has been a big help now to two gifted artists – Sarah Jessica Parker, who created the role in ’95, and now Ms. Ashford 20 years later. You haven’t lived until you watch her ease an itch by rubbing her bottom on a rug, or reacting to rules she doesn’t understand but instinctively knows will not make her happy. And all she wants is to be allowed to be near her savior, Greg, at all times.

Robert Sella and Matthew Broderick. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Robert Sella and Matthew Broderick. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Greg is played by the ever-popular Matthew Broderick, who happens to be the real life husband of the original Sylvia. I’ll bet the Brodericks at home have a rule that does not allow morning after queries like,”How many laughs did Annaleigh get last night?” or “How does she look in the fancy outfit you buy her once she’s formally moved in?”. Regarding his performance, it’s odd in that it’s sort of stuck somewhere between the one he gave in the film Ferris Bueller and I’d call it ‘Ferris Bueller Gets to Sing’ in the Broadway musical The Producers, in both of which he played a lovable nerd. That same nerdy fellow is appearing now in Sylvia but I do think Mr. Broderick could have added a unique tick or two. This character of his showed up recently again in It’s Only A Play and Nice Work If You Can Get It, so it’s definitely time for this very well-liked performer do a little stretching, for Ferris is getting a little old and familiar to warrant so much exposure.

Julie White as wife Kate to this Ferrisy Greg is, as she was in Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed: attractive, smart, an expert at slinging zingers at us whenever an author supplies her with an arsenal of them, and Mr. Gurney has done so for his Kate. But unlike her character in the Beane play, Kate is all of the above, but earns her temper tantrums and always has us in her corner wishing her well.

Sylvia is a fanciful but slight dessert sort of a play, so have yourself a satisfying meal before ordering it up. It’s light and funny and easily digestible, so have a go.

And then there’s Ms. Annaleigh Ashford, who is sort of the whipped cream on top making it all a real and rare treat.

Sylvia is playing at The Cort Theatre – 138 West 48th Street, in New York City. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, or (800)447-7400, buy them at the box office, or purchase them online.

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Richard Seff
RICHARD SEFF has been working in theatre since he made his acting debut in support of Claude Rains in the prize winning DARKNESS AT NOON, and he agreed to tour the next season in support of Edward G. Robinson, which took him across the nation and back for nine months. When it was over and he was immediately offered another national tour with THE SHRIKE with Van Heflin, he decided to explore other areas, and he spent the next 22 years representing artists in the theatre as an agent, where he worked at Liebling-Wood, MCA, eventually a partnership of his own called Hesseltine-Bookman and Seff, where he discovered and developed young talents like Chita Rivera, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Ron Field, Linda Lavin, Nancy Dussault and many others. He ultimately sold his interest to ICM. When he completed his contractual obligation to that international agency, he returned to his first love, acting and writing for the theatre. In that phase of his long and varied life, he wrote a comedy (PARIS IS OUT!) which brightened the 1970 season on Broadway for 107 performances. He became a successful supporting player in film, tv and onstage, and ultimately wrote a book about his journey, SUPPORTING PLAYER: MY LIFE UPON THE WICKED STAGE, still popular with older theatre lovers and youngsters who may not yet know exactly where they will most sensibly and profitably fit into the world of show business. The book chronicles a life of joyous work working in a favored profession in many areas, including leading roles in the regional theatres in his work in Lanford Wilson's ANGELS FALL. His last stage role was in THE COUNTESS in which he played Mr. Ruskin for 9 months off Broadway. Five seasons ago Joel Markowitz suggested he join him at DCTheatreScene. His accurate and readable reviews of the New York Scene led, when the time was right, for his joining DCMetroTheaterArts to continue bringing news of the Big Apple's productions just to keep you posted. He is delighted to be able to join DCMTA and work with Joel and hopes that you like what he has to say.