Empty-nesters Greg and Kate have finally “got a place” in the city and delivered the last kid to college. Greg (Matthew Broderick) hates his job and falls out with the boss. Kate (Julie White) blooms in a long-delayed career. Yes, this is Midlife-Crisis-City.
Playwright A.R. Gurney, a product of St. Paul’s (though long before the “Senior Salute” hit the headlines), Williams, and Yale Drama, writes about the people he knows. He’s long exploited the humor and pathos hardwired into the over-privileged cohort that raised him.
Sylvia is an odd little piece focused on a middle-aged man of that class and his obsession with a stray dog that adopts him in Central Park. Greg’s devotion to her, to the dog Sylvia, challenges his decades-old marriage in exactly the way a conventional mid-life affair might – except in this case, the other female lives in the couple’s home and pees on their floor. Even more bizarre than that, the tawdry tang of bestiality hanging in the air, seems distinctly un-Gurney-like.
White plays Kate as the wife who sees a bad thing coming down the pike but can’t get out of the way. Gurney gives her something of Thurber’s wife’s exasperation but little of her resignation. (Am I the only one who thinks it is funny that she got a Tony for The Little Dog Laughed?) She doesn’t throw many haymakers but, White, who may be the leanest beautiful woman on the American stage, packs the sardonic punch of another classy broad, Myrna Loy.
Still the Kate and Greg story would be nothing short of banal if not for the object of his obsession and our affection — Sylvia.
Annaleigh Ashford’s Sylvia is a scampering, simpering dervish of a dog. If you have ever lived with a dog, played with a dog, even walked a dog, you see Ashford’s got every note right. Sylvia denies all knowledge of the puddle behind the chair, she looks at Greg with aloof distain when he urges her to “roll over”. Coming back from a walk she announces she’s got to “check her messages” as she lays her lovely nose on the carpet and sniffs with Hoover-like determination.
Ashford/Sylvia walks upright most of the time and speaks like the brazen bitch she is meant to be. Still, when the doorbell rings or someone shouts or startles her, she turns “HEY, HEY, HEY” into a convincing bark.
There are rafts of wonderful moments in her performance as she trades back and forth across the species divide. But, there is one point where she verges on dingo.
In a three-minute scene, tethered at the end of a bright red leash, Sylvia spots a cat, and loses her mind, giving voice to all the monumental rage dogs seem to direct at cats; she is indignant at the very existence of “that sack of shit.” She all but pulls Greg off his pins in her struggle to get at the cat. This is a belly-laugh scene; the single best moments of this dark comedy.
What is it with actors playing dogs? Gurney wrote this long before Jacob Ming-Trent “got his scamper on” in Father Comes Home From the Wars last season. Is this a Suzan-Lori Parks homage to Gurney?
The two women (three if you count Robert Stella playing Kate’s friend Phyllis) do all the heavy lifting here; Ashford as the wily pup and White as the classy broad are entertaining and engaging by turns.
Broderick has chosen — and perhaps director Daniel Sullivan wished it so — a strange sameness in each delivery. He is in love with his dog and ignoring his wife and losing his job. But, while the text tells us he is obsessive about the dog, enraged at his boss, guilty about his wife, and unhappy in himself, his delivery is even throughout, and consistently passionless.
If Broderick offers up thin soup, Stella is chewing hard at the scenery. As Tom, another dog owner, he cautions Greg about his unhealthy involvement with Sylvia and Tom is smarmily funny here as he knows whereof he speaks. As Phyllis, Kate’s friend, he plays the society broad – well, broadly. As the therapist Leslie, he had a lot of fun being predictable.
The evening wraps up with the retrieval of Kate’s missing copy of All’s Well That Ends Well. An early bone (sorry) of contention was the allegation that Sylvia had eaten it along with chewing Kate’s best shoes.
Both the sentiment and the title suggest Gurney may have struggled to find a satisfactory ending. Much of the play is fun but the march to the end falls rather flat.
"'Sylvia,' despite being one of Mr. Gurney’s more popular plays — the woman-plays-dog conceit probably helps — feels tediously overextended and repetitive at two hours and two acts. Although it has a certain silly charm, a sweet message about making connections both human and non- and some nicely turned jokes, ultimately the play has all the heft of a teacup poodle."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"A.R. Gurney’s whimsical but whippet-thin diversion."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Ashford makes whomever she’s performing with look good, and it takes a lot to make Broderick look good these days — there should be a special Tony category for that job."
Elizabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"She sniffs strangers’ crotches with impunity; she butt-scoots on the carpet; she swears viciously at cats. What a joy to see Ashford unleashed."
David Cote for Time Out New York
"Man's best friend may never have a better tail than A.R. Gurney's charming play... It helps when you have a hot dog in the title role and Annaleigh Ashford, a new Tony Award winner, is at the top of her co-me-tick game. She's off and running."
Mark Kennedy for Associated Press
"Dog-owners in the audience are identifiable by their guffaws over every recognizable mutt mannerism, but there's enough meat here to sustain a half-hour playlet at best, in an overstretched conceit that runs an interminable two hours-plus."
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter
"It’s a perfectly charming show."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...