Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 27, 2015
Sylvia by A.R. Gurney. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Scenic design by David Rockwell. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Japhy Weideman. Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald. Music by Greg Pliska. Wig & makeup design by Campbell Young Associates. Cast: Matthew Broderick, Julie White, Robert Sella, and Annaleigh Ashford as Sylvia.
Such qualities are largely absent from the new revival of the play that just opened at the Cort. Though director Daniel Sullivan has overseen a production that looks nice enough (the fine picture-postcard sets of two-decades-ago New York are by David Rockwell) and hits the necessary notes in broad terms, the simple charms that should make this a bulletproof evening are rarely in obvious evidence. What you get instead are three acclaimed stars struggling visibly hard to come out on top of it, but not ultimately succeeding.
On the surface, the story should not need much help. Greg rescues Sylvia from Central Park, where she was apparently abandoned. He takes her home, only to learn that his wife, Kate, is not as enamored of her as he is. They're edging toward the upper end of middle age and her dog-owning years are behind her, Kate says. Nonetheless, she's willing to give Sylvia a chance, but over just a few days, Sylvia hides a valuable book, puts teeth mark on one of Kate's best shoes, and manages to "chew a hole in a twenty-two-year-old marriage."
The central idea is that Greg, despite loving and wanting to please Kate, sees Sylvia as able to provide him the undivided attention and affection that she can't. Hence, why she's played by a young actress in sassy, provocative clothes (Ann Roth designed the fur-lined jeans-tights ensemble used here): She is critically important as "the other woman." Kate, a teacher who's developing an ambitious plan to teach Shakespeare to inner-city high school students, has too much of her own life to lead, and trusts that Greg can take care of himself. But he's tired of his humdrum days as a commodities trader and wants to pursue activities with more meaning, which he finds in his daily walks and heart-to-heart talks with Sylvia.
As Greg, Matthew Broderick is giving the same performance he's given in every New York stage appearance since The Producers: that of a simpering, whining man-child stuffed into a middle-aged man's body. His faced plastered with a goofily soulless smile and his voice nasally, high-pitched, and sing-songy, Broderick's Greg is less a real man beaten down by life than a 1960s cartoon. Broderick looks so uncomfortable, even at odds, with the play's reality, that you never accept the most important single conceit: that Greg needs to be rescued. No, he's already been discarded by the world as being unable to cope with it, and seems to have already adjusted to that fact.
Julie White is one of the best comic actresses in town, and deservedly earned a Tony for her bravura turn as the problem-solving agent Diane in Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed in the 2006-2007 season (also at the Cort). But her skill is ferreting out laughs from unusual places through a detached-sophisticated mien that mocks the modern world's niceties, something that's not of much use in the "straight man" part of Kate. When facing off against Sylvia, for example, White always looks as though she's about to deliver either a pratfall, a punch line, or both, but instead settles on a gentle, earnest dissatisfaction that's at right angles with both the writing and Broderick (with whom White, probably not through her own fault, has no chemistry whatsoever.
After netting a Tony of her own for her portrayal of Essie in last season's revival of You Can't Take It With You (where she stopped the show with the broken-down-balletic way she sat on the floor at one point), Annaleigh Ashford probably seemed a natural to play Sylvia. And, when she's suggesting the way an excited canine nestles into a forbidden couch or indecisively retrieves a ball, Ashford is definitely in her element. But Sylvia needs more: a sympathetic nature, a devoted attitude, and a streak of the disruptor that will let you see both Greg's and Kate's views of this dog on their lives (aside from a few obvious barks, Sylvia's words are their projections of what she's saying). Ashford offers one concrete expressiona vacant stare into spaceand a lilting, airy voice that conveys neither depth nor warmth. It's a friendly interpretation, but skin-deep and mechanical for what should be a fairly complex character.
That the play still somewhat works is a tribute to Gurney, who even at his more rickety moments is still a playwright who understands human nature and what it means to be separated from it. Even when they're obscured, the feelings are there. It should add up to more, but what's here is not nothing. And it's quite a bit more than that when Robert Sella is onstage.
He plays a trio of advice giversTom, a know-it-all dog owner Greg meets in the park; Phyllis, an old college friend of Kate's; and Leslie, the marriage counselor who tries to keep the pair unitedwho themselves aren't as together as they like to let on. It's silly, utilitarian stuff, but Sella has so sharply defined each of the characters physically (Tom's drawn face doesn't look at all like Phyllis's crisp, patrician visage) and vocally that they become far more real than Greg, Kate, and Sylvia, and Sella unlocks much of the hilarity in the piece that Broderick, White, and Ashford miss.
When Sylvia becomes determined to stuff her snout up Phyllis's dress, Sella's projection of mortification, distaste, and just the tiniest dose of amusement, combined with an ineffectual flailing-arms attempt at self-protection, is a thing of theatrical and comedic beauty. Even better: It momentarily arouses this Sylvia from its torpor and helps keep it from going entirely to the dogs.