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.
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.
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.