Matthew Broderick as Greg and Annaleigh Ashford as Sylvia in Daniel Sullivan's Broadway mounting of A.R. Gurney's Sylvia at the Cort Theatre.
Matthew Broderick as Greg and Annaleigh Ashford as Sylvia in Daniel Sullivan's Broadway mounting of A.R. Gurney's Sylvia at the Cort Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

It's a story we've all heard before: The kids are in college, the wife has gone back to work, and the lonely middle-aged empty nester encounters another woman whose lavish attention becomes his panacea. But in A.R. Gurney's charming 1995 comedy Sylvia, now making its Broadway debut at the Cort Theatre, the tale is anything but typical.

The catch? Sylvia, the "pert and sexy" young lass of the title, isn't a woman at all. She's a talking canine, part poodle/part lab, and in Daniel Sullivan's unexpectedly moving production of Gurney's astute portrait of midlife crisis, she's played by the incomparable, Tony-winning Annaleigh Ashford.

A grungy stray, Sylvia runs right up to Greg (Matthew Broderick) in the middle of Central Park and he rescues her, whisking her away to the Upper West Side apartment he shares with his wife of two decades, Kate (Julie White). The platonic love affair between Greg and Sylvia blossomed from the second they laid eyes on each other. "I think you're God," Sylvia says to Greg as soon as she walks in the door. "I felt some immediate connection. Didn't you?" "I did, actually," he replies.

For Greg, whose job is dissatisfying (among his other afflictions), Sylvia equals salvation, a figure for him to dote on and who will give back the same affection. For Kate, who is in the throes of developing a curriculum to teach Shakespeare to junior high school students in Harlem, Sylvia is a major annoyance. "The dog phase of my life is definitely over," Kate tells the pup she comes to view as a threat to her and Greg's relationship.

Sylvia is a drop-dead-funny play, but like all of Gurney's work, it also possesses an undercurrent of churning melancholy. There are real things at risk for Greg and Kate, a pair of unhappy people torn even further apart when this outsider (an obvious metaphorical stand-in for an actual human girlfriend) claws her way into their lives. Though the idea of equating dog as paramour (and therefore woman as dog) will no doubt (rightfully) infuriate some, the ingenuity of Gurney's script lies in his questioning of what happens when man starts anthropomorphizing his "best friend," and how easy it for us to use our animals as a substitute for human interaction.

In order for it to be completely successful, Sylvia needs to strike a delicate balance between zany and truthful. Despite the tendency of the writing to sag in certain spots throughout, Sullivan's production delivers in spades, with performances that are at once grounded in reality and completely of another world. Broderick (whose wife, Sarah Jessica Parker, originated the role of Sylvia in 1995) is the best — and most psychologically present — he's been in several seasons, his aloof persona the perfect fit for this distanced and remote character. Few of White's contemporaries do antic exasperation as well as she does, and here she manages to turn a shrewishly drawn character with one basic feeling (hatred, for Sylvia) into a recognizable, three-dimensional figure. Robert Sella, who plays three characters (a butch animal lover whom Greg meets in the park, an Upper East Side doyenne with whom Kate reconnects, and a gender-fluid psychotherapist), completes the four-member company, and he's a real hoot.

But no one steals the show from under Ashford's gleefully demented paws. With big, crimped '90s hair (by Campbell Young Associates) and several costume styles (by Ann Roth) ranging from dirty and matted to freshly groomed and just a little bit sexy, Ashford is truly in a class all her own. Running, jumping, and sliding around David Rockwell's colorful New Yorker cartoon of a living-room set with Central Park views (lit by Japhy Weideman), Ashford proves herself not only to be one of Broadway's great comic performers but also, in the tender moments, one who's willing to dig deep to unleash genuine emotion.

Ashford and Broderick make such an endearing pair that they manage to rip our hearts out even as we laugh our heads off. If their close onstage relationship (and our reaction to it) proves one thing, it's that the bond between humans and their pets cannot be broken.