Review Roundup: SYLVIA Opens on Broadway - All the Reviews!
SYLVIA, a play by two-time Pulitzer Prize-nominee A.R. Gurney (The Dining Room, Love Letters) and directed by Tony Award-winner Daniel Sullivan (Proof) opens on Broadway tonight, October 27, 2015. SYLVIA stars two-time Tony-winner Matthew Broderick (It's Only a Play, Nice Work If You Can Get It, The Producers, How to Succeed..., Brighton Beach Memoirs) as Greg, 2015 Tony-winner Annaleigh Ashford (You Can't Take It With You, Tony-nominee for Kinky Boots, Hair) as Sylvia, Tony Award winner Julie White (The Little Dog Laughed, 2015 Tony-nominee for Airline Highway, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) as Kate, and Drama Desk Award winner Robert Sella (Stuff Happens, Sleepy Hollow, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) as Tom/Phyllis/Leslie.
Funny and heartwarming, Sylvia is about what happens when a smart, sassy, captivating canine befriends a New Yorker in Central Park and changes his life -- and his wife's life -- forever. This wonderful look into the complexities of love and commitment asks what it truly means to be devoted to your partner...and how do you choose between the love of your life and man's best friend?
Let's see what the critics had to say...
Charles Isherwood, The New York Times: Ms. Ashford...makes for an exceptionally comely and understandably appealing pet...Mr. Gurney's comedy rests on this critter acting almost as human as the humans...Of course, the most robust humor in the play derives from watching Ms. Ashford bound around the stage causing trouble of various kinds and acting in true doglike fashion...I can find no fault with Ms. Ashford's frisky, energetic and inventive performance, but Mr. Broderick has become something of a frustrating puzzle. For more than 10 years now, he has been turning in variations on the same coy performance, employing a curdled, boyish and weirdly artificial voice...As Greg...Mr. Broderick gives a fine performance as a gentle, loving man coming slightly unmoored. But the voice kept pulling me out of the performance...Although Daniel Sullivan shapes the performances nicely, this veteran director doesn't exactly add to the luster of his long career here...
Michael Dale, BroadwayWorld: No, this not a reinvented version of CAROUSEL that's opened at the Cort, but the first Broadway production of A.R. Gurney's clever and off-beat 1995 comedy, Sylvia. On the surface, the play is about a married man in Manhattan who bonds with a stray dog in Central Park who has a tag around her neck saying Sylvia, and takes her home, much to the consternation of his wife. As scripted, Sylvia is played by a woman dressed in normal clothing that merely suggests her identity as a dog. And while the play is a breezy, hip and sentimental comedy, there's always the visual subtext of a young woman happily and unconditionally fawning over the older man who keeps her at the end of a leash.
Mark Kennedy, Associated Press: Man's best friend may never have a better tail than A.R. Gurney's charming play, which opened Tuesday at the Cort Theatre. It helps when you have a hot dog in the title role and Annaleigh Ashford, a new Tony Award winner, is at the top of her co-me-tick game. She's off and running...Daniel Sullivan directs with howling success...Ashford...captures the playful, naughty essence of a dog without being led a-stray by camp...For all the doggie brilliance, there's a fourth member of the cast -- a rubber-faced Robert Sella -- who is of a different breed, entirely. He plays three roles, including a dog-lover with a pooch named Bowser, a haughty Manhattan matron who Sylvia turns into a mutt-ering mess, and a marriage counselor of indeterminate gender. He is hysterical.
Marilyn Stasio, Variety: Ashford does her considerable bit by finding realistic human actions suggestive of doggy behavior...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...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...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...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.
David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: When Ashford enters the elegant Manhattan apartment of Broderick's Greg and his English teacher wife Kate (a miscast Julie White), it's impossible not to be charmed by the anthropomorphized pooch. She bounds around and over furniture, gamboling with uncontainable delight in her new home, sniffing every inch of the place and dragging her butt across the carpet while panting with the urgency of finding adequate ways to express her unquestioning adoration. The writing, direction and performance could only have come from years of doggy devotion...But once the rambunctious dog impersonation has worked its initial magic, it soon becomes apparent that the play is a very shallow bowl of kibble.
David Cote, Time Out NY: Daniel Sullivan's spic-and-span production pretty well justifies the Broadway premiere of what is a modest and very Manhattan Theatre Club-type play...Broderick, perkier than he's been lately, gets crucial voltage from Ashford and White, both endlessly inventive comedians. Ashford has the showier role, of course, dashing about in fanciful doggy couture (costumes by Ann Roth) on David Rockwell's fairy-tale Central Park set and keeping up a sassy stream-of-consciousness. She sniffs strangers' crotches with impunity; she butt-scoots on the carpet; she swears viciously at cats. What a joy to see Ashford unleashed.
Elysa Gardner, USA Today: "My aim in life is to please," Sylvia tells Greg and his decidedly wary wife, Kate, early on. But Sylvia has her own needs; and as played by the adorable and astute comedic actress Annaleigh Ashford...she makes them known without apology. This new production of the A.R. Gurney play, directed with a winking eye and a buoyant heart by Daniel Sullivan, casts Matthew Broderick as Greg, a man who has grown fed up with his work and perhaps a little itchy in his marriage...Broderick is very much in his comfort zone playing the blithely goofy straight man...Ashford has the juiciest role, of course, and she plays it to hilt...But it's Ashford's enormously expressive face that draws us in most, her eyes flaring and teasing and pleading, tickling and ultimately touching us.
Linda Winer, Newsday: Despite increasingly annoying directorial exaggeration as Daniel Sullivan's production progresses, this one is another anthropomorphic lovefest on Broadway, now with an equally spectacular Annaleigh Ashford as the rescued talking pup. In the opening scene in Central Park, she puts her nose into the hand of a midlife-conflicted man named Greg -- portrayed with the utmost clueless sweetness by Mathew Broderick in his most engaged and endearing performance in a long time...Ashford...creates her physically irresistible doggy self, as did Parker, without a fake tail or phony ears...If only Daniel Sullivan, best known for staging sensitive and serious dramas, did not crush the charm by having Robert Sella overplay the supposed hilarity of four increasingly obnoxious minor characters. Sylvia...should tell him who's the star here.
Robert Kahn, NBC New York: There's a casting director out there who deserves a Milk-Bone. That reward is for realizing twinkly Annaleigh Ashford could so dynamically inhabit the title role in "Sylvia"...As a labrador-poodle mix who nuzzles up to a middle-aged schlub (Matthew Broderick) in Central Park and awakens him to life's possibilities -- while almost destroying his marriage -- Ashford pounces into a potentially fraught role and comes out gleaming...Ashford is put into every canine trope conceivable (Sylvia is neutered!) and manages it without being cloying, a crucial matter for a play that's already got some behavioral problems...It was comforting to see stage vet Broderick more at ease than he was last season in "It's Only a Play." His chemistry with Ashford is swell.
Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News: A.R. Gurney's whimsical but whippet-thin diversion, "Sylvia," is about marriage and midlife and how man's best friend can become a woman's worst enemy...It's just a cute and clever conceit. But not quite enough to sustain two hours. Director Daniel Sullivan has a light touch with his a tightknit ensemble, but the play is undercooked and overlong. Still, there are pleasures. Annaleigh Ashford ("Masters of Sex") makes an adorable talking stray mutt...she affirms her stature as a comic ace...Matthew Broderick gives his most assured performance in a long while as Greg, an unhappily employed middle-aged empty-nester who finds Syliva in the park and becomes obsessed.
Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: You've got to hand it to Matthew Broderick: He's a reliable actor. You can always count on him being either wooden or downright lifeless. When his performance is merely serviceable -- as it is in the new Broadway revival of "Sylvia" -- it counts as a triumph. Of course it helps that the show pairs him with the inimitable Annaleigh Ashford, who gives a wonderfully zany performance as the titular dog...Ashford makes whomever she's performing with look good.
Matt Windman, AM New York: If Daniel Sullivan's Broadway revival doesn't necessarily make you a fan of dogs, it will most definitely make you a fan of Annaleigh Ashford...Ashford gives an absolutely wonderful performance as the title character...As playfully portrayed by Ashford...Sylvia is everything at once: innocent, excited, confrontational, scared, silly, tender, hormonal, adoring and always adorable. This truly is one of those must-see performances that will stick with you for some time. Broderick gives the sort of cartoonish, oddball performance previously seen in shows such as "The Producers" and last year's "It's Only a Play," but it works unusually well here, and he has terrific chemistry with Ashford. In their hands, "Sylvia" is a most unusual, quite touching love story.
Marc Snetiker, Entertainment Weekly: Ashford is no one-trick canine, but those now-signature performance quirks...lend themselves to the spontaneous, indecisive, and rambling nature of Sylvia, whom Ashford plays with thoughtfulness and teenage vacuity somewhere between Snoopy and Kesha. With director Daniel Sullivan's license, Ashford is spry and spasmodic in channeling the animal's feral energy. Eventually, the physical half of the big "joke" -- that is, human playing dog in earnest -- wears thin, but Ashford rescues herself from her own plateaus with bursts of sudden enthusiasm...Broderick gives the same pathos-less performance he's been offering since 2012's Nice Work If You Can Get It, a sleepy stroll that fits with Greg's stubborn, oblivious, and altogether aggravating lack of awareness...Even to the most pessimistic, Sylvia is innocuous and zippy, surprisingly foul-mouthed, and perhaps the very definition of disarmingly funny.
Robert Hofler, TheWrap: 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...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...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...Ashford's sexy pooch is much snarkier than Parker's. It's the difference between what you want in a pet: an ersatz Madonna or the real Sarah Jessica Parker.
Christopher Kelly, NJ.com: ..."Sylvia" is very sweet and very slight -- a valentine to dogs and the owners they have wrapped around their paws. And, indeed, whenever the tireless Ashford is on stage -- one moment cursing up a storm at an off-stage cat, the next contriving ways to climb atop Greg and Kate's furniture -- this production strikes just the right balance between sentimental and silly. Too often, though, that balance is upended...Broderick adopts a puzzling, Ward Cleaver-like affect -- as if he's playing the idea of an American middle age man instead of an actual character. We never quite believe his Greg is married to White's Kate, and so it's impossible to invest emotionally in the marital crisis Sylvia supposedly causes.
Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune: ...Broderick does not really show us a vulnerable guy on some kind of journey...[he] is pretty much the same at the end as he is at the beginning: He delivers his lines with much the same cadence in both acts, which can be funny in a technical sense, but does not move us much of anywhere, dramatically speaking, nor provide the requisite complexity of relationship..That's not to say "Sylvia" has no laughs...Ashford navigates many of the pitfalls of this role well -- her doggy is a detailed set of observations, and her crotch nuzzling, couch laying, sitting, begging and the rest are all executed with amusing aplomb on a romantic Central Park-themed set from David Rockwell that tacitly acknowledges the retro, patriarchal nature of the play.
Jonathan Mandell, DC Theatre Scene: 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. 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...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...She's a human distilling the essence of dog -- which is far more persuasive, and entertaining.
Alexis Soloski, The Guardian: Ashford plays the title character in AR Gurney's Sylvia, a comedy as predictable as it is indestructible...But if you have ever loved a pet, it is almost impossible not to feel moved by the interspecies romance of Greg and Sylvia...The schtick of the play is that Greg and Kate, like all pet owners, anthropomorphise their animal...And [Ashford's] acting isn't particularly doggy either, although there's a way she tosses her head that does suggest the canine. But there's something sunshiny and genuinely irrepressible about her that transcends any species categories...The director Daniel Sullivan can't teach it many new tricks, but he can give it a typically adroit and able production. Broderick, who sometimes underplays his roles, is a glove-like fit for the moony, diffident Greg...But make no mistake, it's Ashford's play. There is no curbing this dog.
Ron Taub, Huffington Post: I think that Sylvia is more than a wacky romantic triangle about a husband, a wife and a dog. It's also about love, relationships, instinct, loyalty and life's vagaries as well as complexities, but don't dig too deep because more than anything it's a very funny show. Those of us who own or have owned dogs will most certainly laugh and nod our heads throughout the play, but non dog owners can also enjoy it.
Jesse Green, Vulture: Unfortunately, this fantastic comic challenge is a dramaturgical disaster. To begin with, the rules of Sylvia's doghood are unclear and chaotically enforced. At first her English is presented as an approximation of what a human might think a dog is thinking: Barks are rendered as "Hey! Hey! Hey!" and soulful stares as "I want to sit near you." Sometimes, wittily enough, Sylvia responds to Greg's philosophizing with deflections like, "I wish I could contribute something here, but I just plain can't." At other times, though, Sylvia speaks like a normal person, and the other characters talk to her in the expectation that she will understand them specifically and rationally. Is she becoming more human, as Ann Roth's witty canine-human crossbreed fashions, moving from a furry sweater and velour bodysuit to a black cocktail dress, seem to suggest? Then why does she switch back to the furry sweater later? I suppose this is all covered under a general talking-animal-comedy indemnification policy, but it does add to the ad hoc feeling of the play, as if it were built to stand for only the two hours it takes to perform and not a second longer. At the stroke of ten, no matter how many shout-outs to Shakespeare it has offered, and despite the lovely Cole Porter tune jammed in for no reason, it collapses instantaneously.
Jeremy Gerard, Deadline: Think too hard and the whole thing falls apart, or into a kind creepiness as Greg's affections turn obsessive and just this side of sexual (I hope). But in truth, Sylvia might easily have been a red Ferrari or a hot secretary, and Gurney slaps on a happy ending that's pat but at least sympathetic. In 1995, I wrote, "Sylvia becomes the route through which Greg divorces everything meaningless in his life; it's significant that that does not include Kate." Robert Sella plays three increasingly annoying characters - Bowser's male owner, a society doyenne and an ambisexual shrink - whose comic relief is vulgar, unnecessary and overdrawn. So leave the deep-thinking cap at home, and settle in for some pleasurable laughs. A lot of them.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus