A Delicious Romp in the Park with Sylvia Ashford
I’m a dog lover. Well…, let me rephrase that, I love MY dog, Lucha. And this show plays tribute to that particular kind of love, and to anyone who has loved one’s own dog will be charmed by Sylvia, the Broadway revival of A. R. Gurney’s play. Sylvia is about a husband and a wife, and the dog that romps into their life and cheerfully wrecks havoc. Happily, that particular dog is Sylvia and she is played wonderfully and energetically by that talented actor, Annaleigh Ashford (Tony winner for her fantastic work in last season’s You Can’t Take It With You). The husband, Greg (a sweet and charming Matthew Broderick) is a bit of a lost soul; lost in a job that he doesn’t love and that seems to be fitting him less and less as the days go by. Maybe a midlife crisis is waiting in the wings or a restructuring of some sorts. The wife, Kate (a delightful Julie White, who I completely loved in And The Little Dog Laughed back in 2007) is flourishing now that her children are away at college. She’s settling into a newly found excitement with being an educator and Shakespeare lover, and looking forward to a fun social NYC life with her husband. A dog is not what she had in mind. A dog is actually the last thing she had in mind, and a dog, as talkative and loving as Ashford’s Sylvia is to her husband, is not the battle she thought was coming her way. But this four legged man’s best friend is bring it into their recently empty nested Manhattan apartment they have just relocated to. And with that difference in opinion, the battle is on. Which species will win Greg’s love and attention, the wife or the dog?
This play, directed by Daniel J. Sullivan, has great fun with the idea that most pet owners firmly believe that they are in a constant and loving conversation with their animals. We imagine they speak to us, listen to our every word, and understand us completely. And I heard myself a wee bit in Greg’s chats with the attentive and adoring Sylvia. It’s utterly adorable and charming how we believe we hear their replies and comments coming back to us from our dogs (and other pets – yes Lisa, cats talk back too, but maybe a bit more arrogantly detached). I particularly loved the bit when Sylvia sees a cat in the bushes of Central Park. And also the dog park scenes with Bowzer, the handsome male dog Sylvia has her eye on. Gurney also lightly explores the psychology of a man who is experiencing confusion as he looks at his life midway through and asks the questions we all might ask about the meaning of it all. But this time, the life coach he asks is not the psychotherapist he encounters, nor this wife of 22 years, but his devoted loving dog, Sylvia.
Kudos must be given to the cast, especially Ashford’s joyous and lively portrayal of the loving and adoring canine, Sylvia. She’s having a blast finding all those charming and silly dog qualities to engage with the dog owner and lover inside of us. She romps around, sniffs, scoots, and scratches herself into our hearts. Battling the delicious Sylvia for Greg’s attention and affection, Julie White is wonderfully frazzled, balancing love and hate without going overboard. I only wish she had a bit more to do. The part is a bit under written and simple, and although it’s probably a whole heap of fun to do, I imagine it’s not much of a challenge for this talented actor. Robert Sella is also having a great time playing three different and very funny characters that come into contact with this tense romantic triangle/war; Tom, a slightly manly dog enthusiast and owner of Bowzer; the nervous socialite and friend of the family, Phyllis; and the gender ambivalent psychotherapist, Leslie.
I must add, reluctantly, that I can’t help that I’ve used the word ‘charming’ numerous times in this commentary. This is a lovely and very charming piece of theatre. A light and charming play charmingly done by a talented team of theatre pros. Does it get any deeper then that? Not really, and on that note, I think I longed for a more intimate smaller theatre like the Manhattan Theater Club/City Center which housed the 1995 off-Broadway production (starring Sarah Jessica as “Sylvia” in the picture to the left, Blythe Danner, and Charles Kimbrough) rather then the fairly large Broadway Cort Theatre. It felt like a cute portrait on a very large wall.
Regardless, it’s a charming lively little play. Sweet and simple. Funny and endearing. This is not going to challenge us in any way, shape, or form. It sort of materializes into the equivalent of the numerous cute pet videos on Facebook. Loving and adorable. So I’m going to hit the like icon on this one. As my loving Lucha Villa, my devoted 14 year old dachshund, looks on, smiles, and tells me how much she loves me.