First Nighter: Annaleigh Ashford as A. R. Gurney's Talking Dog Runs Away With 'Sylvia'

When it gets to coming on strong these days, few are coming on stronger than Annaleigh Ashford.

She was a Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards nominee two years ago for Kinky Boots (after appearances in Legally Blonde, Wicked and Hair) and then won the Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circles awards last year for the You Can't Take It With You revival. Then, she played committed-to-ballet Essie Sycamore. Now she's putting her hilarious physical and verbal skills to good use as the title character in A. R. Gurney's Sylvia, at the Cort Theatre.

The comedy winks at a particular instance of a dog being man's best friend -- but not, as Gurney writes it, a woman's best friend. What the prolific playwright has here is the study of one guy's middle-age crisis, kinda sorta mixed with one guy's offbeat seven-year itch.

The poor fellow is Greg (Matthew Broderick), who's bored with his job but wrested from his malaise when he finds an abandoned dog in Central Park, whose tag identifies her as Sylvia. Instantly, he's enamored of her, but when he takes her home, wife Kate (Julie White) isn't instantly enamored. Quite the opposite, and things between Greg and Kate worsen as he increasingly devotes more and more time to Sylvia and less and less time to her or to a job where he's eventually given an extended leave as a result of disintegrating work habits.

It could be said that Gurney -- who sets up any number of amusing sequences wherein Sylvia shines -- intends her to be a symbol of a middle-aged man's enervating loss of self-esteem. But while the prolific dramatist keeps the audience delighted with Sylvia's shenanigans, he turns his comedy into a case of putting the cart (read Sylvia) before the horse. In the short time it takes a man to whistle for his dog to fetch a ball, Sylvia has taken over the proceedings and has all but reduced Greg and Kate to the situation's straight man and straight woman.

Coming-on-strong Ashford is up to and beyond the demands. Dressed by Ann Roth in a shaggy camisole, denim shorts, furry wristlets and with blond hair cascading, Ashford transforms Essie Sycamore's giddy first-through-fifth-position antics into adorable canine kinetics. She's full of on-the-prowl and stretched-out-on-the-(prohibited)-sofa poses.

It's difficult to say when she's funniest in her conversations with Greg or in her ignoring them, but one of the high points is her attempt to menace a cat she sees but can't get to because of the leash on which Greg is holding her. Another, possibly even funnier couple of minutes is her libidinous behavior when in heat and more than passingly interested in a pooch dubbed Bowser owned by Greg's dog-walking pal Tom (Robert Sella).

(I don't recall Sylvia's being quite so scatological when Sylvia was first presented at Manhattan Theater Club with Sarah Jessica Parker as the talking dog. Keep in mind that Parker preceded hubby Broderick in the play. As a consequence of what she remembered of the role, has he been able to put in extra rehearsal time at home?)

Ashford's shenanigans as well as those of the others is directed with great humor by the ever-versatile Daniel Sullivan on David Rockwell's attractive set with its shimmering Central Park landscape backdrop. Japhy Weideman's lighting and Peter Fitzgerald's sound also help things along proficiently

Running away with the play as Ashford does, she isn't alone at taking advantage of the opportunities Gurney offers. Besides appearing as dog owner/good guy Tom, Sella gets into drag as Kate's hoity-toity alcoholic friend Phyllis and then shifts into partial drag as gender-unspecific couples-therapist Leslie.

Watching Phyllis attempt to sympathize with Kate's outpouring about Greg's relationship with Sylvia is a barrel of laughs. Sella becomes even funnier when Phyllis gets drunk as a result of being repeatedly crotch-nuzzled by Sylvia. The turn with Leslie's odd behavior only adds to the effect Sella makes. (Whereas Ashford won the featured-actress-in-a-play Tony last year, Sella positions himself well for this year's featured-actor-in-a-play prize.)

Broderick and White, two more Tony winners in the four-member cast, are no Sylvia slouches, either. It's just that perfect as they both are, this time they've got the straight roles -- straight roles traditionally not the ones reaping the bigger rewards in comedies.

Broderick's slyly understated onstage manner absolutely fits Greg, and he doesn't miss Greg's slowly realizing the devotion to Sylvia is a manifestation of deep-seated denial. As a teacher aiming to get William Shakespeare taught more regularly in Harlem, Julie White expertly exhibits Kate's mounting frustration with Greg while continuing to love him.

This brings up an interesting Sylvia wrinkle. Having introduced Sylvia as the obstacle over which Greg must hurdle in order to move on with his life -- which includes mending the cracks in his marriage -- Gurney eventually has the befuddled husband decide he must give Kate preference over Sylvia.

Anything more detailed about the denouement would have to require spoilers. So it's sufficient to mention that Gurney provides an ending that seems right for the play but not necessarily for audience members who've grown to love the irresistible Sylvia. So he tacks on a second ending meant to gratify the many Sylvia lovers in the audience. Since those unquestionably outnumber patrons wanting something realistic, anyone criticizing Gurney's ultimate choice can only be considered a curmudgeon.

Incidentally, at one point, Gurney creates a totally unexpected reason for Greg, Kate and Sylvia to stand across the front of the stage and sing Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye." Since all three actors have attractive musical comedy voices, the result is utterly charming -- in, uh, tune with the entire affair.