If, like me, you enjoyed Annaleigh Ashford as the daffy romantic factory worker in Kinky Boots (for which she won a Clarence Derwent award) and loved her as the talentless balletomane in You Can’t Take It With You (for which she won a Tony), wait until you catch the crotch-sniffing aria she’s performing now at the Cort. Rarely has an actor so fully committed to the business of exploring another’s genitalia, at least onstage; she really digs around in there, yelping with pleasure and causing the audience to do so, too. Perhaps I should mention that she’s playing a dog: the probable-labradoodle title character of A.R. Gurney’s 1995 comedy Sylvia, now having its Broadway premiere. Ashford gives a comic-genius performance, establishing herself as a full-fledged clown star, meaning she’s not only hilarious and eccentric but able to project both qualities, as well as an undertone of pathos, to the back of the house. If only it were possible to experience this without having to sit through the trite, tissue-thin sitcom itself, but the performance and the play are bound together, no matter how much Ashford strains at the leash.
The trade-off is worth it, and maybe even necessary; she’s so relentlessly inventive and idiosyncratic that a certain amount of triviality is useful in keeping her from going completely berserk. As it is, bringing fierce energy to its shallowness, Ashford all but runs off with the play, which also stars a miscast Matthew Broderick and a marooned Julie White. Some of Ashford’s shtick is familiar from her earlier stage performances and from her turn as the prostitute Betty Dimello on Masters of Sex: the distorted, twelve-tone line readings; the slightly delayed reactions; the openness bordering on blankness as she runs headlong into the action. But the opportunities presented by Sylvia to embody doggy emotion and physicality bring out something even wilder in her. She lopes, scratches, shimmies. She furiously calls out neighborhood cats (“You’re a sack of shit, you know that?”) and adores her owner, Greg, beyond measure. (“I think you’re God, if you want to know.”) Ashford finds a million astonishing ways to do a few basic things; a dog’s feelings may be deep, but they aren’t very varied.
Unfortunately, this fantastic comic challenge is a dramaturgical disaster. To begin with, the rules of Sylvia’s doghood are unclear and chaotically enforced. At first her English is presented as an approximation of what a human might think a dog is thinking: Barks are rendered as “Hey! Hey! Hey!” and soulful stares as “I want to sit near you.” Sometimes, wittily enough, Sylvia responds to Greg’s philosophizing with deflections like, “I wish I could contribute something here, but I just plain can’t.” At other times, though, Sylvia speaks like a normal person, and the other characters talk to her in the expectation that she will understand them specifically and rationally. Is she becoming more human, as Ann Roth’s witty canine-human crossbreed fashions, moving from a furry sweater and velour bodysuit to a black cocktail dress, seem to suggest? Then why does she switch back to the furry sweater later? I suppose this is all covered under a general talking-animal-comedy indemnification policy, but it does add to the ad hoc feeling of the play, as if it were built to stand for only the two hours it takes to perform and not a second longer. At the stroke of ten, no matter how many shout-outs to Shakespeare it has offered, and despite the lovely Cole Porter tune jammed in for no reason, it collapses instantaneously.
Beyond that, a play that already seemed 20 years behind the times in 1995 now seems not just tired but icky. Nominally, it’s about how finding Sylvia in the park one day helps Greg negotiate a midlife crisis, while at the same time alienating his non-dog-loving wife, Kate. In other words, Sylvia takes the place of the bimbo secretary in a slightly older era of comedy; I’m not sure that conceptualizing her as a dog (or Kate as the other kind of bitch) makes the idea any less objectionable. Gurney touts other themes to throw us off the scent; there’s some drivel about society’s alienation from tangible things and the way dogs can be bridges back to the natural world. But these feints are so feeble that they exacerbate instead of attenuating the problem; you can feel the playwright pedaling fast. Anyway, nothing can really cover the smell of rotten old jokes — there’s even a pun on election and erection — or the lazy teasing of once-daring topics. Greg and Kate’s visit to Leslie, a marriage counselor of indeterminate gender, makes Julia Sweeney’s “It’s Pat” sketches, which first appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1990, seem profound. (The versatile Robert Sella plays Leslie as well as two other supporting roles, one male and one female.)
Not that I would prefer Sylvia to have been written as a tragedy; Edward Albee already did that, albeit with a goat. But surely it could have been a better dog comedy for being smarter about men and women. That it isn’t is evident from the inability of even Daniel Sullivan, such a fine director, to do much more than accommodate Ashford’s brilliance. Certainly Broderick, as Greg, was a mistake; he’s way too becalmed and interior an actor to have a convincing crisis on stage. (In 1995, Charles Kimbrough played the role.) And there’s nothing believable about Broderick’s relationship to White as his wife. She’s infinitely more engaging but not right either; it’s understandable that she chooses to warm up the cold WASP character (originally played by Blythe Danner) but the choice doesn’t serve the play’s narrow cosmology. Still, it may be the best of several bad roads through the role’s pocky terrain, just as Japhy Weideman’s bright lights and David Rockwell’s cartoon sets put the best face on an unprepossessing tale.
For all that, it’s no small achievement to write a part that showcases Ashford’s extravagant gifts and gives her the raw material with which to provoke an audience to rolling roars of laughter. (Sarah Jessica Parker, who originated the role, was more charming than hysterical.) I left the theater — after the sappy post-curtain slide show — feeling pretty much like Kate, peeved and disapproving but unable to suppress a smile over the adorable doggy proceedings. Aren’t you a good girl? Yes you are!
Sylvia is at the Cort Theatre through January 24.
*A version of this article appears in the November 2, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.