She Excels Each Mortal Thing

For those of us who have made that greatest of life decisions—that is, for those of us who have a dog—A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia will prove amiably familiar: there are the invariably tangled leashes, the boundless and unconditional affection, and, of course, the projections of humanity onto an animal that usually cannot speak.  In upper-class Manhattan, the eponymous puppy (Annaleigh Ashford) is discovered in the park by middle-aged businessman Greg (Matthew Broderick), whose wife Kate (Julie White) is pursuing a career in urban education but who finds himself in a state of empty nest ennui.  Sylvia, a frenetic threat to Kate’s late-life stability, quickly seizes all of her owner’s attention, creating an odd love triangle in which a woman finds herself competing with a dog for her husband’s love.

Typically, Mr. Gurney offers a script that is narratively and emotionally conventional but one that offers a twist of dramatic invention: the casting a woman in the role of Sylvia.  And the attraction of the play is unquestionably Ms. Ashford’s performance.  She thrusts herself into Sylvia’s body language and demeanor, frantically but enthusiastically running in circles and offering bursts of friendly yaps rendered here as, “Hey! Hey! Hey!”  Within moments of appearing onstage, she has thrice told Greg, “I love you,” a love uncomplicated by anything more than its simple companionship.  Even when swearing, like any us would, at the presence of a cat (“I want to kill that fucker … You’re a sack of shit, you know that?”), Ms. Ashford is effortlessly and endlessly charming.

“Read The Odyssey sometime,” Sylvia tells Greg late in the play.  “That guy was gone for twenty years, and when he finally got home, the first person to recognize him—before his nurse, before his son, before his own wife, goddamnit—was his dog!  That dog was lying outside the palace for all those years, waiting for him, Greg.  Lying on a dung heap just waiting for his master.  And when his master finally showed, what did the dog do?  He raised his head, wagged his tail, and died.”  Sure, the material is inherently mawkish, but Mr. Gurney does a nice job avoiding that kind of tedium—after all, there is nothing more excruciating than listening to cute stories about other people’s dogs and children.  And while Mr. Broderick is oddly monotonous (his wife, Sarah Jessica Parker, originated the role of Sylvia), his flat delivery is more than made up for by his castmate.  If this play is not particularly shattering or profound, there is nonetheless an honest, rudimentary wisdom in Greg’s plan for world peace: “We should all have dogs.”

Sylvia runs through January 3rd at the Cort Theatre.  138 W. 48th Street  New York, NY.  2 hours.  One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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