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," the 1995 A.R. Gurney comedy now having its first Broadway run at the Cort Theatre.
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.
Just so there’s no confusion, understand that for two-plus hours, Ashford impersonates a dog. The actress wears kneepads, but her message “checking” and crotch-sniffing are all stamina. If you’ve seen Ashford twirl in “You Can’t Take It With You” or lament “The History of Wrong Guys” in “Kinky Boots,” you know the magic she can do.
In “Sylvia,” distractible hero Greg finds the abandoned pooch and becomes overwhelmed by the give-and-give of unconditional love. Sylvia, faithful and close by, comes without the complications of a boss (unseen), or a wife (Julie White, of “Airline Highway,” etc.).
In contrast to the noise from those relationships, what Greg hears from Sylvia is: “I think you’re God.” That’s the sentiment the dog shares on entering the Upper West Side apartment where much of the play is set. So who among us hasn’t projected onto an animal thoughts that align with things we need to hear? Greg does just that.
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.
Greg is almost completely checked out of his marriage, but in the end, Sylvia helps him transition to the next phase of his life. 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. (Coincidentally, Mrs. Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, was Sylvia in the play's premiere 20 years ago.)
White’s had meatier roles, but is good here, if resigned to being one-note. I cracked up every time she passive-aggressively called the dog “Saliva.” Robert Sella, in three roles traditionally played by one actor -- a fellow dog-lover; a snooty former classmate of Kate’s; and an androgynous marriage counselor -- is a campy delight.
Director Daniel Sullivan (“Proof”) might have kept “Sylvia” on a tighter leash, but I’m inclined to see these as writing issues. “Sylvia” runs long, and doesn’t have much gravitas. We end up with scenes that would be funny briefly -- Sylvia’s reaction to a cat in the street -- but that here feel labored. Is that the tail wagging the dog?
There are other issues: If a dog bounds up to you in Central Park with its name on a tag, there’s probably an owner out looking for it. Greg, check with your local veterinarians, ASAP! And let’s not get me griping about the tear-jerking, tacked-on “Marley & Me”-ish ending (yes, I know John Grogan’s novel came after “Sylvia,” but still).
A lovely device has theatergoers filing out of the Cort while pictures of dogs belonging to producers, crew and audience members (via social media) flash by on a screen. “Sylvia” is going to be a mastiff-sized hit with animal lovers. I didn’t have an abiding affection for this production, but you could certainly call it puppy love.
“Sylvia,” through Jan. 24, 2016 at the Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St. Tickets: $37-$147. Call 212-239-6200.