Sylvia, Starring Annaleigh Ashford and Matthew Broderick, Opens on Broadway; Red Carpet Arrivals, Curtain Call and After Party!
It's more literal than untowardly to say that Annaleigh Ashford is a real bitch who breaks hearts and wrecks homes in A.R. (Pete) Gurney's funny canine valentine that officially celebrated its 20th anniversary Oct. 27 by starting its first Broadway run at the Cort Theatre. She's Sylvia in the play by that name: a female mutt-Lab retriever with strands of possible poodle, given the Piaf she breaks into from time to time.
Yes, Sylvia sings. She talks. She struts and sulks and communicates with her human housemates in their lingo — and they, back at her. The conceit of this charming and heretofore uncharted domestic triangle is that the family dog has been elevated to mistress level, adored and doted on by husband Greg and detested by wife Kate.
Unlike Broadway's last Sylvia (Edward Albee's Tony-winning 2002 The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?), the relationship in the center ring never gets physical or goes kinky on us, instead staying rigidly BFF and lovingly soft-focused. Still, that's enough to exclude the wife and send her on the marital warpath, claiming an alienation of affection. There is a certain cosmic justification in casting Matthew Broderick as the conflicted man in the middle of this home-front tug-of-war. After all, he fell in love with — and 18 years ago married — Gurney's original Off-Broadway Sylvia, Sarah Jessica Parker.
Mrs. Broderick was radiantly in attendance on opening night and beaming even more at the after-party that followed at Bryant Park Grill. "I loved it!" she confessed without coaxing. "When I was doing the play, I didn't get to see it, so it was really wonderful to understand the play in a very different way. I think when I was playing that part, I was concerned mostly with my own work and telling that story.
"Sitting in the house now — and this was not the first time I've seen it — it was really nice to pay attention to the story and experience what a clever and exquisite writer Pete Gurney is. He sorta presents what is seemingly a soufflé, but what really is about longing and a search for contentment and meaning and a connection. That's something that Pete is so good at it, and I loved watching Matthew play that role."
Broderick's second favorite performance in the inaugural Manhattan Theatre Club run is the one he is now following. "I remember quite well what Charlie Kimbrough did with the part and adored it," he said. "It's a fun part to play, with equal measures of humor and emotion. I hope we get the balance right. Gurney's tricky. You don't want to show too much either way. His characters don't like to do that. All his comedies seem light and fun on the surface, but underneath something awful is happening."
Just ask Julie White in the Blythe Danner role of the odd-wife-out. She puts up a brassy brass-knuckles fight for the marriage. "I was interested in exploring the idea of a long marriage. Someone said, 'What's the secret of a long marriage?' The answer is, 'Don't get divorced.' These two have grown a little apart, but I wanted it to be a relationship that you were invested in and cared about, so I kept looking for the points of connection between us, and Matthew and I came together that way."
You might deduce from the evidence at hand that Mrs. Gurney (called Molly but actually a Mary) "suffered enough for the Holy of Holies," like Jennifer Jones in "The Song of Bernadette" — but no: "I don't suffer," she declared with a been-there kind of authority. "I did not take any responsibility for that dog. I'm the wife. I am Kate."
Sure enough, White confirmed, the playwright's wife was in her corner from the very beginning: "She saw me do a reading of the play early on, and all she said to me after was 'I love your anger.' I mean, I'm really pissed off at Sylvia, and I really want to get rid of her because I do feel that she is a genuine threat to the marriage."
Of course, the cause of the chaos doesn't see it that way, insisted Ashford, who revels in the role of the trouble-making dog. "First of all, Sylvia is not human. That's outrageously exciting and surprising and challenging for an actor to play, and there's also such a tender heart to the piece. She's like a fancy woman, but the dog part of her is so child-like. It's such an arc, such a roller-coaster, to play every night."
Ashford won a Tony last year for You Can't Take It With You in a role nobody noticed before — the wannabe ballerina who never will be and flits through the show in full flail. For this trick, she had special help, and she went back for Sylvia's dog tricks.
"His name is Nathan Peck, and he is the dance captain over at Kinky Boots. He is a brilliant dancer and also a very funny man. I also worked with a woman named Fay Simpson, a great movement teacher who uses a technique called The Lucid Body."
Gurney pleaded guilty as charged and admitted to the play's unabashedly autobiographical aspects. "All that business about Dog Hill, meeting dog walkers, certainly the combat between husband and wife, the over-commitment to the dog — all that came very much out of that fact that it was happening in my life at the time.
"They tried to make a movie of it — Tom Cruise's company optioned it — and couldn't because it's a stage play. You need an actor playing the part, that's the fun of it."
The Gurneys live two blocks from Central Park, and that cued David Rockwell's fanciful and marvelously fluid set design. "What I observed about the play, and spoke to the director about, is that the park would be the overall filter for the show," he explained. "What we did was take the floor of the apartment and morph it to the park so there's no boundary between park or apartment. Even the wallpaper is a Laura Ashley-late-'90s point-of-view looking out at this idyllic view of New York."
There is a fourth wheel to this triangle: one actor fielding three wildly different and outrageous roles — a fellow dog-walker who has a cigarette after his dog has his way with Sylvia, an alcoholic woman whose husband takes baths with his goldfish, and a tightly wound shrink in need of some shrinking. The gifted Robert Sella manned these hilariously, and his female impersonation is easily the best and most natural since Reed Birney's wispy swirl in Harvey Fierstein's 2014 Casa Valentina.
"I had the misfortune to see how brilliant Derek Smith was in the original," Sella said, "and I had to totally wipe that out of my mind. He created these parts to perfection, so I had to say, 'Well, I just have to try to go and do it my own way.'"
Mrs. Sella, actress Enid Graham, took the night off from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, where she plays the mother to play one in real life, escorting their three sons — Valentino, Lorenzo and Giancarlo — to the opening-night hoopla.
Assisting her with the brood were a couple of Sella's Side Man side men: Michael Mastro played waiter, balancing three plates of food on his arm with the elan that betrayed 13 years of restaurant "rehearsing," and Kevin Geer played publicist.
The first person to ever play Sella's roles was also in attendance. "I had forgotten," admitted Nathan Lane, "but Pete Gurney said I did, so I guess I did in the first reading of it with [director] John Tillinger many years ago." Lane hung out at the table of his Producers partner, Broderick, and only fleetingly removed his hat, revealing a shaved dome. "It's for a show on F/X called 'American Crimes Stories.' The first season is about the O. J. Simpson trial, and I am playing F. Lee Bailey."
Dan Sullivan, who directed Sylvia, was quick to pass along credit to his cast: "Annaleigh's a great collaboration — and a great choreographer herself. So much of what she's doing, she came in with. That's a construct that — though I contributed — she's very much responsible for. And Julie's great for her role because she comes with such heart. That part can get very dry and be sort of a villainess, but Julie makes you feel for her situation. As for Bob Sella, he just has that in him.
"My first directing job was a play at Lincoln Center called Scenes From American Life. That was Pete's first play 45 years ago. It was the Forum Theatre then; now it's the Mitzi Newhouse. I've done three or four of his other plays, so I know him well."