Not too long before Seth MacFarlane made Brian Griffin the best-known talking dog in America on the popular television sitcom Family Guy, the prolific 85-year-old playwright A.R. Gurney gave voice to a young, sweet, rambunctious female dog in his heartwarming man-and-pet comedy Sylvia.
There’s been no shortage of Gurney’s numerous plays (which generally chronicle the demise of WASP culture in the Northeast) in recent seasons, including the short-lived Broadway revival of Love Letters and his residence with Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre Company. The imaginative and freewheeling Sylvia is so unlike the rest of his work that it serves as a welcome breath of fresh air. Although the play technically premiered Off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club back in 1995 (with Blythe Danner and a pre-Sex and the City Sarah Jessica Parker), it did not receive a commercial transfer and has been little seen since then.
You might not leave Daniel Sullivan’s production ready to adopt a dog, but you will most definitely want to take home Annaleigh Ashford, who won a Tony back in June for her gloriously spastic, scene-stealing performance as a woefully helpless aspiring ballerina in Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It with You. Although Ashford does appear on the cable series Masters of Sex, it was a brave move on the part of the Sylvia producers to give her the title role instead of casting a well-known celeb with little stage experience. (Not too long ago, I heard that Anna Faris was being approached to play the part.)
Ashford gives an altogether wonderful performance as a dog that the middle-aged, absent-minded Greg (Matthew Broderick) comes upon one day in Central Park and brings home to his West Side apartment, much to the annoyance of his wife Kate (Julie White), who starts to see Sylvia as the “other woman” in Greg’s life, competing for his attention.
As playfully portrayed by Ashford (who wears everyday clothing plus some patches of fur and knee pads), Sylvia is everything at once: innocent, excited, confrontational, scared, silly, tender, hormonal, adoring and always adorable. This truly is one of those must-see performances that will stick with you.
Broderick gives the kind of cartoonish, oddball performance previously seen in shows such as The Producers and last year’s It’s Only a Play. But to his credit, it works quite well within the play’s stylized milieu, and he has terrific chemistry with Ashford. In their hands, Sylvia is a most unusual, quite touching love story. Consider it sentimentality at its best.
As the harried, Shakespeare-quoting wife, White delivers a dose of clear-eyed sanity to counteract Greg’s increasing obsession with Sylvia, and Robert Sella is superb in several exaggerated, gender-shifting supporting roles, including the psychiatrist who diagnoses Greg’s affection for Sylvia as the result of a midlife crisis.