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'Sylvia' review: Spectacular Annaleigh Ashford, Matthew Broderick in Broadway's anthropomorphic lovefest

Matthew Broderick with Annaleigh Ashford in A.R. Gurney's

Matthew Broderick with Annaleigh Ashford in A.R. Gurney's comedy "Sylvia" at Cort Theatre. Credit: Joan Marcus

Broadway's new golden girl has deep, limpid eyes and a smile likely to melt multitudes, and she tosses her long blond hair with the sashay of a runway model. Oh, and depending on who's in the living room, she may be allowed on the sofa.

We speak, of course, of Sylvia, the eponymous canine in "Sylvia," the A.R. Gurney shaggy-dog romantic comedy that starred Sarah Jessica Parker Off-Broadway in 1995. Despite increasingly annoying directorial exaggeration as Daniel Sullivan's production progresses, this one is another anthropomorphic lovefest on Broadway, now with an equally spectacular Annaleigh Ashford as the rescued talking pup.

In the opening scene in Central Park, she puts her nose into the hand of a midlife-conflicted man named Greg -- portrayed with the utmost clueless sweetness by Mathew Broderick in his most engaged and endearing performance in a long time. "I love you, I really do," she says, looking at him the way dogs know precisely how to do when necessary. "I think you're God."

And he falls, hard, and brings the dog to the enviable apartment on the park (inventive sets by David Rockwell) that he and wife Kate (a sympathy-evoking Julie White) bought when they moved from the suburbs after the kids grew up and out. Kate is thrilled about starting a new inner-city teaching career. She is also relieved that "the dog phase of my life is definitely over." She calls the interloper Saliva.

The play is an extended -- actually, an overextended -- Thurberesque cartoon about the competition between a man's dog and a man's wife. It is a romantic triangle for unrepentant animal people and the people who love them but just don't get it -- which, I guess, manages to include just about everyone. The fragile, two-act darling would have more impact at a lean 90 minutes, but not if we have to miss a bit of wisdom or knowing manipulation from this Sylvia.

Ashford, who won a Tony last season as an amateur ballet dancer in "You Can't Take It With You," creates her physically irresistible doggy self, as did Parker, without a fake tail or phony ears. Ann Roth has dressed her in knee pads, a skin-brown bodysuit and fuzzy little sweaters that get more glamorous as Sylvia discovers her inner poodle.

If only Daniel Sullivan, best known for staging sensitive and serious dramas, did not crush the charm by having Robert Sella overplay the supposed hilarity of four increasingly obnoxious minor characters. Sylvia, who emits a piercing "heyheyhey" when threatened, should tell him who's the star here.


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