Twenty years ago, before there was a celebrity “dog whisperer” or 27,000 dog-related books for sale on Amazon, the wonderfully funny play Sylvia opened Off-Broadway.
On one level, A.R. Gurney’s script examined the effect of a midlife crisis on a long-married couple. But the title character, the catalyst in the chaos, just happened to be a lovely stray dog, played to perfection by Sarah Jessica Parker. A.R. Gurney’s popular comedy about the friskiest, sassiest and sexiest canine to come between a husband and wife undergoing a mid-life crisis begins a 16 week limited engagement on Friday, October 2nd at the Cort Theatre on Broadway. Directed by Tony Award winner Daniel Sullivan (Proof, Glengarry Glen Ross), Sylvia stars a trio of Tony Award winners: Matthew Broderick (How to Succeed…, Brighton Beach Memoirs), Julie White (The Little Dog Laughed) and Annaleigh Ashford (You Can’t Take It With You).
“Oh, my gosh, this play is like multiple dreams coming true!” says Ashford, bubbling with Sylvia-like enthusiasm. Fresh off her Tony win as a dizzy dancer in You Can’t Take It With You (and a previous Tony nod for the musical Kinky Boots), the actress returns to Broadway after filming season 3 of Showtime’s Masters of Sex, in which she plays a wisecracking receptionist. “Matthew Broderick is one of my favorite actors of all time, and I get to look at him and say, ‘I love you, I think you’re God,’ exactly the way our dogs look at us.”
Sylvia wreaks havoc when her unwavering love for her new master, Greg — who is stuck in a job he hates — creates friction with Kate, whose career is revving up now that their children are grown. “The play teaches us how our relationship with our animals can help our relationship with other humans,” Ashford says. “A dog offers unconditional love, and human love comes with conditions. The couple played by Matthew and Julie White find each other again through solving the problem of having Sylvia around.”
Broderick knows the play well, since he and his future wife were dating when Parker created the role of Sylvia — a portrayal inspired by Sally, his dog at the time. And yet he had never thought about playing ambivalent husband Greg until now. “I remember it from the dog’s point of view, looking at these funny old people,” he says of the script, “and now I’m one of the funny old people.”
Jokes aside, Broderick praises Sylvia as “tender and funny and moving. It’s a love story between a man and his wife and a man and his dog. I love my dogs, and Pete [playwright Gurney] wrote a real dog. I don’t know how he did it.”
Sparking the play’s quirky wit is the fact that Greg and Kate can converse with Sylvia. As Gurney explains on his professional website, Sylvia “works best when the dog is played straight, with no attempt to be arf-arf or cutesy-poo.” Theater companies balked at the idea of a woman being cast as a dog until Manhattan Theatre Club took the plunge in 1995, and Parker’s performance led Gurney to dedicate the play to her “with love and amazement.”
Now Ashford, the rising star dubbed “a sly comic genius” by New York Times critic Ben Brantley, gets to put her mark on a role that’s become a touchstone for young actresses. “It’s an amazing chance to explore the physicality of being something other than human,” she says. “But people are confused at first when I tell them I’m playing a dog. I have to explain that I don’t wear ears or paws or a weird nose. It’s all beautifully representational.”
Broderick’s dry, wry comic style seems ideally matched with Ashford’s carefree Goldie Hawn–meets–Judy Holliday sensibility. His inspirations included childhood idols such as Jackie Gleason and Jack Benny, as well as film characters created by Mel Brooks, his collaborator on the smash hit Broadway musical The Producers. Since winning his first Tony in 1983 as the youthful narrator of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, Broderick has mastered the art of playing the comedy beneath the drama (and vice versa), a difficult balance required in every Gurney play.
“Pete’s characters have a lot more going on than it may seem on the surface,” the actor observes. “He’s a naturalistic writer, but he’s also brilliant at mining the depths of repressed people. [The dialogue] doesn’t feel like jokes, but you find yourself laughing and also being very moved.”Sylvia, he adds, “is realistic about the middle years. [Greg’s] relationship with the dog is in some ways deeper and more complex than if he was having an affair.”
Broderick first met A.R. Gurney, who turns 85 this fall, during rehearsals for the playwright’s 1971 drama Scenes From American Life at Lincoln Center’s Forum Theatre (now the Mitzi E. Newhouse). The future stage and screen star was 9 years old at the time, visiting his father, cast member James Broderick. Completing the circle: Sylvia’s Tony-winning director, Daniel Sullivan, made his professional debut helming Scenes From American Life. “I’ve always wanted to work with Dan,” Broderick says now, “and I’ve known and admired Pete since I was a kid.”
Not surprisingly, the stars of Sylvia love dogs in real life. The Parker-Broderick family currently includes a rat terrier named Kissy, and Ashford used her pet, a mini Australian shepherd named Gracie, as research assistant during days off from Masters of Sex. “We’ve been taking obedience and agility classes, and on the weekends we drive to a ranch to take sheep-herding classes,” she says, adding with a laugh, “I have read so many books about dog psychology, I could start a second career as an obedience trainer.”
Broderick didn’t expect to be lured back to Broadway so soon after his season-long run in Terrence McNally’s hit comedy It’s Only a Play, but Sylvia was too appealing to pass up. “I like being able to ‘own’ the performance,” he says of his 30-plus-year stage career, an impressive mix of plays and musicals. “I like the quiet when an audience is really listening, and I like to make people laugh. This play should be very pleasing for Broadway audiences. I adore it, and I hope they will too.”