Sarah Jessica Parker made her evolution from Broadway’s Annie to HBO’s Carrie Bradshaw by playing a dog in A. R. Gurney’s 1995 play, “Sylvia.” Parker’s real-life husband, Matthew Broderick, now stars in the comedy’s first Broadway production, which opened Tuesday at the Cort Theatre in New York.
He’s not the dog, he’s the man, Greg, who adopts the stray dog, Sylvia (Annaleigh Ashford), much to the dismay of his wife, Kate (Julie White), who doesn’t want to raise a child substitute now that her own human kids have left the nest.
Greg and Kate talk to Sylvia, Sylvia talks back to them, and that gimmick makes “Sylvia” mildly diverting until Gurney can deliver his next gimmick.
Let’s count them here:
As costumed by Ann Roth, Sylvia looks like a mutt in the first scene, but she quickly gets a makeover that turns her into Madonna sometime between her “Borderline” phase and her “Papa Don’t Preach” phase.
The actor playing a fellow dog owner, Tom (Robert Sella), is triple cast, as the wife’s girlfriend Phyllis and as the couple’s sexually ambiguous therapist, Leslie.
It’s not enough that director Dan Sullivan pushes (or allows) Sella to deliver a drag performance of such coarseness that it would make Lypsinka turn in her Vikki Carr collection. Ashford must goose the situation by aggressively checking out Sella’s crotch with her nose, not once but several times.
There’s more. When Greg gets his dog spayed after she has enjoyed a randy day in the park, Sylvia shows up in the next scene bowlegged in pain with a plastic protection cone around her neck. The cone is a telling piece of direction, because it’s not enough that Ashford walks like, well, she’s just been spayed. She must wear a cone, too. Why? Did the vet tie the dog’s tubes through her ears?
All of this gimmickry — some of it written into the play, some of it resulting from Sullivan’s direction — wouldn’t matter if the characters, the dog included, weren’t so dull. Larry David‘s very popular and critically trashed “Fish in the Dark” from last season displayed more wit in five minutes than Gurney gives us in two-plus hours. Kate calls the dog Saliva. That’s one of the funnier jokes, so Gurney has Kate repeat it in the second act.
The wimpy Broderick and the dynamic White don’t belong on the same stage, much less in the same marriage. Her bundle of neuroses, fun to watch in other shows, doesn’t fit this level-headed character. When Kate finally does vent her anger, Sella literally stomps all over White’s scene.
Broderick turns yet another character into an eternal adolescent, his voice occasionally sliding up to an F above middle C for the wispiest of comic effects. He confuses Greg, just another financial analyst, with the eccentric Elwood P. Dowd, who sees a six-foot rabbit in the classic comedy “Harvey.” But in “Sylvia,” everybody talks to the dog and the dog talks back. That reality is not key to the husband’s illusions.