Signs of a midlife crisis take many forms in popular culture and entertainment: purchasing a flashy new car, undergoing plastic surgery or even leaving a longtime partner in search of a new and different one. But in Sylvia, A.R. Gurney's play receiving its Broadway bow, a man's midlife crisis takes a singular form: that of Annaleigh Ashford, who plays the titular canine.
See Matthew Broderick, Annaleigh Ashford and Cast Star in Sylvia
Gurney's comedy, which premiered Off-Broadway in 1995, follows Greg, a middle-aged man suffering from empty nest syndrome, played by Matthew Broderick. After meeting Sylvia in the park, he adopts her, to the dislike of his wife Kate, played by Julie White. Greg's fixation with Sylvia continues to escalate, along with tension between Sylvia and Kate, each of whom want Greg's attention to herself.
While Ashford, who is in her 30s, has not experienced a midlife crisis yet, she shared that she, along with many of her peers, went through what she called a quarter-life crisis while in her early to mid-20s. "We don't often talk about the quarter-life crisis, but it is a real thing," Ashford said. "It's also why, no matter what age you're at, you can identify with a man having a midlife crisis. It's something that is accessible no matter what. Especially the way our word is set up now for kids who are graduating from college — you're trying to self identify. You're finding a new identity. That's also, I think, what's happening in the play: Greg is finding his identity with his family dynamic shifting so dramatically."
Ashford, who won a Tony Award for her scene-stealing performance as determined aspiring ballerina Essie in You Can't Take It With You and was Tony-nominated for playing the love-struck Lauren in Kinky Boots, is currently featured on "Masters of Sex" and will appear in several upcoming films, including "Love on the Run" and "Stereotypically You." While her star appears to be solidly on the rise, she admitted to going through her own periods of self-doubt.
"I kind of had a quarter-life crisis before I did Rent," she recalled. "I had done Glinda in Wicked for a while, I had worked for Cirque Du Soleil and then I did Hair. Then I had a real quiet time, not having work, and it was a time of not only self-discovery of me as a person, but also what I wanted as an artist and actor. That time has made me even more grateful for all of the great opportunities I've had the last few years... It's a thing that happens for real. You work so hard [in college], and all of a sudden you don't have to work that hard anymore but you have to find something to work at. You've been allowed to be passionate about what you love for so long, and now that possibility is not always accessible."
Robert Sella, who portrays several characters in Sylvia, has also experienced periods of self-reflection or doubt about his own career choices. Having worked as an actor since the age of nine, he made his Broadway debut in 1993's My Fair Lady, followed by roles in Cabaret, Side Man and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, with numerous TV and film credits. But, Sella shared, he also did not act for a few years in order to focus on his family and reflect on if he found his work fulfilling.
"Once in a while — and maybe it's because of your age — you stop and look around. There are signposts everywhere. And you think, 'Am I doing the right thing? Is this where I should be?' Sella recalled. "It's nice to be back after thinking, 'Yes. I think this is what I do want to keep doing.'"
"Interestingly, every time that I've, in a relationship, gotten to the point where someone [is going through a midlife crises]. I have not made it through anybody's midlife crisis with a relationship intact."
Broderick also began his career — and experienced success — at a young age, winning a Tony for his 1983 Broadway debut in Brighton Beach Memoirs and snagging a second award for his starring role in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Still performing on Broadway more than 30 years after he first stepped onstage, the father of three children said his life differs greatly from his character's.
"This story [of Sylvia] is right when the kids have gone off to college, so [Greg and Kate] really are looking at a change," Broderick said. "My life right now is still very much about kids, and that will be very strange."
While midlife crises — and their long-term results — can be disruptive and even painful, Sella said Gurney's play explores Greg's experience with Sylvia in an affectionate and clever way.
"It's not exactly a person at that point who's saying, 'I'm going to go into this world and make a clear decision.' It's someone who's saying, 'I'm growing up. I'm growing older. What's possible? What are the horizons that are available to me?' And it's done in such a witty way. I think it's fun."
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)