The shrewdest thing about this Broadway revival of “Sylvia” was the decision not to update A.R. Gurney’s 1995 comedy to the present day, when it would probably be stoned to death by feminists. Not because the title character, a dog, is played by a woman, but because the villain of the piece is the wife of the dog’s besotted owner, who wants the beast out of the house before it destroys her marriage. If you can put such thoughts out of your head, it’s a perfectly charming how.
It’s love at first sight for Greg (Matthew Broderick, ideally cast as a sweet, clueless nebbish) and Sylvia (Annaleigh Ashford, delectable in the role originally played by Broderick’s wife, Sarah Jessica Parker), a scruffy mutt he finds wandering around in Central Park. “I love you,” Sylvia declares, in the slobbery way of dogs. “I think you’re God.”
Greg finds the dog’s abject adoration irresistible. Of course he would. Unhappy at work and feeling adrift, but reluctant to confide in his wife Kate (Julie White, miscast but game), Greg is in the throes of a classic midlife crisis. But when he takes Sylvia home to their apartment on the Upper West Side, he discovers that Kate wants no part of his existential crisis.
“The dog phase of my life is over,” she says, reminding him that she did dog duty when their children were young. Now that the kids are grown and gone, she takes her stand, declaring “I want freedom from dogs.”
Gurney has created an amusing and remarkably accurate idiom for translating Sylvia’s doggy language into human speech. (“Hey-hey-hey-hey!” is his clever approximation of Sylvia’s bark.) Ashford does her considerable bit by finding realistic human actions suggestive of doggy behavior. Attaching herself to Greg’s leg and declaring her undying love and loyalty to her lord and master (“My aim in life is to please”), she challenges Kate to pull them apart.
So long as she’s jumping all over the furniture, slobbering all over Greg, and turning Kate’s new shoes into chew-toys, Sylvia is innocently adorable. As is Ashford, who has created an endearing persona that’s equal parts doggy charm and girly sex appeal.
To Greg, who soon becomes obsessed with his chatty best friend, Sylvia is his connection to the natural world and his own “primitive” self. But as he soon learns, Sylvia is also an animal, with an animal’s embarrassingly primitive instincts that surface when she spots a cat or goes into heat in the park. Unnerved by such brutish displays, Greg is wised up by a more savvy dog owner named Tom. Robert Sella does triple duty as know-it-all Tom, a sexually ambiguous marriage counselor and one of Kate’s snooty East Side friends — and is swell in all three roles.
In helmer Daniel Sullivan’s super-slick production, everybody pitches in to sustain the illusion that the soul of a shaggy dog can live in the shapely body of a gifted comic actress. David Rockwell’s set for Central Park has the two-dimensional look of a comic book. Ashleigh’s cute costume (by Ann Roth) involves a furry top that matches the actress’s mop of unruly blonde hair. (After a visit to the dog groomer, Sylvia briefly resembles a pampered poodle — and begins speaking French!) And Japhy Weideman’s super-bright lighting design makes it clear that we’re in fantasy land.
But really, is it all fantasy? As long as we can sit back and laugh at Sylvia’s doggy antics while admiring Ashford’s comic flair, “Sylvia” is harmless fun. But the story isn’t really about the dog, it’s about the dog’s owner. Gurney’s point is that having a dog socializes and civilizes a dog owner — especially a dog owner whose wife is insensitive to his existential crisis. Like many a beloved pet, Sylvia is the replacement for a wife like Kate, who is too wrapped up in her own career to notice that her husband desperately needs her. (Bad wife! Bad girl! Down!)