Is “sweetness” enough to sell a Broadway show? The producers and creative team behind A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia certainly think so—and they’re absolutely correct. But the playwright’s latest revival, which originally opened off Broadway in 1995, also adds heaping teaspoons of charm to the mix, creating a recipe for a satisfying night of theater.
Set in a posh New York apartment, Sylvia invites us into the home of Greg (Matthew Broderick) and Kate (Julie White), a couple whose 22 year old marriage has grown dull and uninspired. After finding Sylvia, a dog in human form (Annaleigh Ashford), Greg adopts her, much to Kate’s chagrin. Kate focuses on her plans to teach Shakespeare to high school students and ignores Greg’s mid-life crisis (and Greg, for the most part). Robert Sella rounds out the quartet cast in three roles: Tom- a fellow friend in the dog park, Phyllis-Kate’s college friend, and Leslie-a “gender fluid” psychiatrist. Sella, who was marvelous in last year’s 30th anniversary production of The Mystery of Irma Vep, brings his versatile comedic skill to the table once again.
Tony winner Julie White, who could easily let her character slip into the territory of “unlikable shrew”, carefully straddles the fence between frustration and eventual understanding. White, even in this year’s unsuccessful Airline Highway, can do no wrong in her roles. She is a master of the craft and continues to perfect it here.
Broderick brings appropriate lackluster to Greg, a man desperately seeking improved existence. Although Broderick’s stage career is comprehensive, his default acting always steers into blasé territory. Here, it works to his advantage though as this Eeyore of a man slouches through life in search of his greater purpose.
Let’s not kid ourselves, though. This show undeniably rests in the capable…paws? hands?… of Ashford, who injects this show with more enchantment than should rightfully be allowed by law. Her agile antics and physical embodiment of a canine is truly impressive. Like her previous roles, Ashford never “overdoes” it, but manages to add the exact amount of quirkiness needed to charm audiences. David Rockwell’s smart costuming allows her to sniff, scamper, and scoot with uninhibited energy. Within moments, we’re won over as though a puppy has been placed directly into our laps.
Gurney’s work doesn’t reach the depth of his other plays, but there is simple poignancy here. It’s not a particularly new observation that many of us inhabit lives of quiet loneliness in this congested city of masses. Yet with eyes and ears yearning for connectedness, Gurney shows us that even a domestic pet can gently nudge us to a comforting space of validation.
Sylvia plays at Broadway’s Cort Theater (West 48th between 6th and Broadway). For tickets and further info, click here or visit the box office.