Annaleigh Ashford garnered praise and a Tony nomination for her scene-stealing work in Kinky Boots; a year later, she walked away with the prize for her dizzyingly satisfying turn as Essie Carmichael in an otherwise banal revival of You Can't Take It With You. The occupational hazard of being a brilliant supporting performer is that one can end up fenced into the sidelines, never given the chance to shine in a leading role. And, of course, there are those whose talents don't translate to the ability to carry a production (I'm reminded of the usually wonderful character actor Michael Park, who floundered when tasked with leading Atlantic Theatre Company's revival of The Threepenny Opera). When it was announced that Ashford would headline the Broadway premiere of A.R. Gurney's sweetly funny 1995 play Sylvia, I found myself excited and trepidacious. Would her quirky comic style extend widely enough to cover this fairly substantial role? Or would it become clear that her gifts are best sampled in small doses?
I don't know why I worried. Ashford's Sylvia is a marvel, and one of the most ebulliently joyous comic performances I've witnessed in years. The role is tricky -- in case you didn't know, the lady in question is a an anthropomorphized dog -- and some of Gurney's humor can feel middlebrow. Ashford transcends any weakness in the writing, offering a master class in physical comedy, pitch-perfect timing, and even surprising subtlety.
Sylvia is found in Central Park by Greg (Matthew Broderick), a middle-aged middle-manager who finds himself rudderless now that he and his wife, Kate (Julie White), are empty-nesters. They've moved to Manhattan from the suburbs, and Kate -- who earned her master's degree while the kids were in school -- has gone back to work writing curriculum for the NYC school system. She is ready to enjoy her obligation-free life and views Sylvia (not to mention Greg's growing fondness for the dog) as a threat.
Some critics have leveled claims of sexism at Gurney, while others have suggested a bestiality subtext lurks beneath Greg and Sylvia's relationship. Neither seems to particularly fit the text or the performances here. Broderick is affable and warm from the first moment onward, yet he also deftly conveys the degree to which Greg feels lost in a world no longer familiar. There is a small moment in the first scene of the play where Greg looks into Sylvia's eyes and his expression seems to say, "thank you for saving me." It's subtle, almost too subtle, but lovely if you catch it. I often feel that Broderick is unfairly maligned as a lazy, low-energy performer. His work in Sylvia is top-notch, and he earns his fair share of laughs. His chemistry with both Ashford and White is superb.
White manages to convey Kate's distaste for Sylvia without turning her into a monster, although there were moments when I feared she might veer towards the overly shrill. Robert Sella is the designated scene-stealer in this production, perfectly encapsulating three kooky characters who exist only for comic relief. But who minds that they add nothing to the plot when they're embodied so deliciously? Daniel Sullivan's overall production is well-paced, with the majority of laughs landing squarely as they should.
The evening belongs to Ashford, though. One hopes that her barn-burner of a performance will do to her what Venus in Fur did for Nina Arianda, or Curious Incident for Alexander Sharp: instantly rocket her into the upper echelon of the most valuable -- and pleasurable -- actors working in theater today. -- by Cameron Kelsall
[purchased discounted ticket, front side orchestra]