Sylvia – More than Just a Play about a Man and His Dog

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Matthew Broderick and Annaleigh Ashford. Photo by Joan Marcus
Matthew Broderick and Annaleigh Ashford. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 Sylvia, the play by A. R. Gurney which is currently on Broadway, is, on the surface, about a man and his dog.  But underneath, it is about so much more:  a mid-life crisis and the feelings of disconnection that so many feel in our increasingly abstract work places.

We all know that a man and his dog are inseparable; when that dog is cute and wiggly and blond, the man is apt to be even more smitten.

That is the impetus for the plot.  Greg (Matthew Broderick) is a middle-aged executive who is unhappy in his job  One day walking in NYC, a stray dog captures his heart so he bring her home (her tag says she is Sylvia, but no other information is provided), to the city apartment he and his wife have recently moved in to.  As empty nesters, they are starting a new phase of their lives.  His wife, Kate (Julie White) is less than thrilled. She’s been there and done that. Plus she has now started a rewarding career as an English teacher in the NYC schools; in fact she is caught up in a project to engage middle schoolers with Shakespeare.

So that is the set up:  Greg wants to keep the dog and Kate does not want the responsibility or the limitations that caring for a dog involves.

Annaleigh Ashford. Photo by Joan Marchus
Annaleigh Ashford. Photo by Joan Marchus

The kicker is that Sylvia is played by an actress, in this case Annaleigh Ashford. (In the original cast it was Sarah Jessica Parker).

It is not a gimmick because it illuminates the triangle of man-dog-wife. Sylvia becomes the person, woman, who listens to him and gives him unquestioning devotion.  She considers him a God and worships him.  What man – or woman – wouldn’t want that type of devotion?  Sylvia senses his discontent.

Kate is too busy to really be aware of Greg’s discontent and when he expresses it, she does not understand it.  He has found his career becoming increasingly abstract – from manufacturing, where he says he could  “see what your making, I could touch it”  but from there he has been moved on to sales (“I still knew the product, I could picture it”) to trading futures in oil, corn and soybeans. Now his company wants him to trade currencies, money markets, derivatives.  As he says, “Nothing to touch, to see, to get a purchase on. And that’s what I mean when I say it’s too abstract.”

Like any long term married couple, Kate and Greg are leading parallel lives; they still care about each other, but they seldom talk about the issues and emotions that are deep inside them.  Conversation is about social engagements and work obligations.

Kate is obviously worried about Greg’s habit to leave work in the afternoon to walk or spend time in the park; she fields calls from his obviously annoyed boss.  He can’t lose his job, but this is a man who is feeling disconnected and probably suffering from a middle-age depression.

With Sylvia he finds a new focus on interest.  There long walks lead to interactions with the random people of NYC; the other owners in the dog park share a common interest.

The plot revolves around Greg’s increasing devotion to Sylvia and efforts to train her and the increasing distance between Kate and him.  Afterall, she is still excited and energized by a career she has both waited for and loves.

To help explore these issues, one actor, Robert Sella, play three different roles.  Tom is a dog park friend who obviously loves the hype-masculinity of his dog Bowser.  Phyllis is an old friend that Kate meets whose purpose in the play seems to be to highlight the growing distance between Greg and Kate and his fixation on Sylvia.  Leslie is an androgynous therapist they see.

So that brings us to this production directed by Daniel Sullivan.

Greg Sella, Annaleigh Ashford, Matthew Broderick.  Photo by Joan Marcus.
Greg Sella, Annaleigh Ashford, Matthew Broderick. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Annaleigh Ashford is delicious as Sylvia.  She has obviously observed dogs for a long time.  She captures their neediness, their desire for attention and love. She has the physical moves down to a “T”.  You can’t help but fall in love with her.

Julie White plays Kate to show us both her concern for her husband and her realization that some extent Sylvia has replaced her in his affections. Kate is neither a selfish person nor insensitive but occasionally she acts that way.  White makes sure we see that underneath it all, Kate is a caring individual who is puzzled by what is going her husband’s life and somewhat threatened by it.

Robert Sella does a good job with the three roles.  Tom is the “he-man” wannabe whose dog has the tough masculinity he would like;  Phyllis is the socialite who understands too well what Kate is going through; and Leslie is a therapist seemingly amazed at Greg’s devotion to Sylvia.  She/he is astonish when Greg suggests that Sylvia be a part of the therapy.

Julie White and Matthew Broderick.  Photo by Joan Marcus
Julie White and Matthew Broderick. Photo by Joan Marcus

That brings us to Matthew Broderick.  His Greg just seems bland.  The character may be depressed about getting older, feeling alienated from his job and dealing with the fact that his wife’s attention is focused more on her job than him.  BUT…it just seems like a low energy performance.  While I have been naturally sympathetic to the character in other productions, this time, it was harder to generate that sympathy.

The scenic design by David Rockwell creates a background of the NY skyline and easily moves from the apartment (which isn’t a chicly furnished as I would have thought it would be), to the park and to other locations. Ann Roth’s costume designs delineate the characters and, of course, create delightful costumes for Sylvia.  Japhy Weideman did the lighting design and Peter Fitzgerald, the sound design. You really do feel that you are surround by dogs.

Sylvia is an absolutely must for any dog lover. At intermission, audience members were sharing dog stories with total strangers.

Sylvia is at the Cort Theater, 138 W. 48th St., NYC.  Tickets are available through Telecharge.  It is a limited run through Jan. 24.

Annaleigh Ashford and Matthew Broderick. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Annaleigh Ashford and Matthew Broderick. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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