Friday, November 6, 2015

Broadway Review—A.R. Gurney's ‘Sylvia'

Written by A.R. Gurney; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Performances through January 24, 2016
Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, New York, NY

Annaleigh Ashford in Sylvia (photo: Joan Marcus)

Sylvia is A.R. Gurney's most obvious (and probably only) crowd-pleaser: his kind-of shaggy-dog story, in which an affluent Upper East Side couple discovers that the stray that husband Greg brought home from Central Park is the wedge making them drift apart: Greg wants to keep her, while wife Kate does not.

The play's gimmick is that Sylvia, the adorable pooch, is played by an actress who speaks Sylvia's dialogue: sometimes to herself, other times to Greg and Kate, with whom she has actual conversations. The effect, while silly, is comically inspired and, depending on the actress playing the part, at times exhilarating.

When I saw Sylvia during its off-Broadway premiere run, Sarah Jessica Parker played her rather too cutesily: she was funny, of course, but not poignant. (I wouldn't be surprised if her replacement, Jan Hooks, found a better balance.) In this slick, brassy revival by director Daniel Sullivan, Sylvia is in the extremely capable hands of Annaleigh Ashford, an adroit physical comedienne who is also quick on her feet with a line or an ad-lib (especially, at the performance I attended, when an audience member's cell phone went off) and able to make us feel for her as...well, a human being.

Whenever Ashford barks—"hey hey hey hey!" is how Gurney has written it—it could be love, hate, anger, affection or irritation, and Ashford varies her tone and timbre to suit the occasion. The actress's showiness is out of necessity since it's a show-offy role, but Ashford smartly underplays as much as possible, and it's to her credit that she makes Sylvia (pooch and play) funnier and more affecting than it has any right to be.

Matthew Broderick long ago perfected his laconic, lazy-sounding line readings, which serves him well as Greg, whose midlife crisis (according to Gurney) comprises spending more time with a canine than with his wife Kate, who is played with her usual killer comic timing by Julie White. Even an underwhelming one-liner like calling Sylvia "Saliva" is done by White with a certain flair, even subtlety.

But subtlety is lacking in Robert Sella's portrayals in three minor roles, especially the two women he plays: a marriage counselor and old friend of Kate's. Perhaps Sullivan felt that Gurney's paper-thin play needed embellishing and so has Sella overact to the detriment of the small-scale joke at the play's center. But that isn't enough to derail this minor but entertaining comedy from one of our true living masters, with a true star turn by Annaleigh Ashford.

Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, New York, NY

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