Annaleigh Ashford has starred on Broadway in Wicked, Legally Blonde, Hair and Kinky Boots; accepted a Tony for what she called “the worst dancing that ever happened on Broadway” and portrays the ex-prostitute in the Showtime series Masters of Sex. All that has led to Sylvia, where Ashford is the best show dog ever.
Yes, she’s better than Lassie or Toto or even Uggie; she certainly beats out any animal trained by William Berloni. Her only competition may be Snoopy.
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Ashford’s consistently hilarious, sometimes touching, always spot-on canine impersonation is the reason to see the first Broadway production of A.R. Gurney’s play about a man who falls in love with a stray dog that he finds in the park, endangering his marriage.
Sylvia first appeared Off-Broadway in 1995 — seven years, it should be said, before the Broadway debut of The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, Edward Albee’s play with a similar theme.
The Sylvia in that play is a goat, and the love its owner feels for it is explicitly sexual. Albee’s comedy, which won the Tony Award for best play and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, uses bestiality, as Albee has told interviewers, to explore “love, loss, and the limits of our tolerance” when we are “subject to circumstances outside our own comfort zones.” By contrast, Gurney has told interviewers his play was inspired by “my dog.”
If Gurney’s milder Sylvia is not meant to shock us — it’s more likely to coddle us into a comfort zone — there are stabs in it as well at a greater resonance. Greg (an unremarkable Matthew Broderick) is having problems at work, and going through a midlife crisis (he talks explicitly of “the anxieties of middle age.”); there is some insight into the dynamics of Greg’s long-time marriage to Kate (the excellent Julie White) and even greater insights into the dynamics of dog ownership. But some of the non-dog scenes can feel like filler. The strength of Gurney’s play is in the precise observations of a dog’s behavior and attitudes, and the glory of this production, delectably directed by Daniel Sullivan, is in the opportunities it gives Annaleigh Ashford to display her nearly mystical gift for physical comedy.
I say mystical because, as in her Tony-winning performance as Essie the apprentice ballerina in last year’s Broadway revival of You Can’t Take It With You, a mere description of what Ashford does can’t capture what makes it so wonderful and so funny. When Sylvia is brought home for the first time, Ashford runs around Greg’s apartment half-exploring, half-rejoicing – just as a dog would, but not disguised as a dog. She’s not doing this on all fours; she’s not wearing a dog suit. She’s a human distilling the essence of dog – which is far more persuasive, and entertaining. When she yells out “Hey, hey, hey,” it’s an exact human interpretation of a dog barking, not a boring reproduction of a dog’s bark. Her X-rated vulgarity when in heat or cursing out a cat provides a needed counterweight to the “awww” cuteness and sentimentality of some of the later scenes.
Sylvia is on stage at the Cort Theatre (138 W 48th St New York, NY, 10036, west of Sixth Avenue), NYC through January 24, 2016.
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