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Some first-class playwrights just can’t catch a break on Broadway. “Sylvia,” originally produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1995, is A.R. Gurney’s fifth try, and for all its success in previous incarnations off Broadway and across the country, the play is only now receiving its Broadway premiere. Will it finally lift Mr. Gurney’s jinx? Straight plays rarely draw crowds without a screen-certified cash magnet, and Annaleigh Ashford and Matthew Broderick don’t quite qualify. On the other hand, “Sylvia” is one of the very best small-cast comedies of the past quarter-century, and this revival, directed by Daniel Sullivan, is so funny that I can’t see how it could fail to ring the box-office gong.
The conceit of “Sylvia” is that the title character (Ms. Ashford) is a dog, a stray poodle-Labrador mix who talks, but only to Greg and Kate (Mr. Broderick and Julie White), her master and mistress, both of whom are middle-aged and feeling it. To us, of course, Sylvia looks like a sexy girl—the only giveaway is the nametag that she wears around her neck—but she acts like a dog and, insofar as it’s possible for a playwright to know, thinks like one, too. (Sylvia to Greg: “I love you. I really do. Even when you hit me, I love you. I think you’re God, if you want to know.”) This being a comedy and Greg being athwart the male menopause, he falls, sort of, for Sylvia, thereby triggering a five-alarm inter-species crisis.
I didn’t see Sarah Jessica Parker, who created the role of Sylvia in 1995, but I did catch the Florida Repertory Theatre’s superb 2011 revival, directed by Maureen Heffernan, in which Michelle Damato played the poodle perfectly. Unlike Ms. Heffernan, who saw that “Sylvia” is a serious comedy about marriage that is even funnier when played straight, Mr. Sullivan bangs on the punch lines: Ms. Ashford, who won a Tony last year for overacting in “You Can’t Take It With You,” nails the crotch-sniffing canine slapstick but is self-consciously cute…
Here we go again: Émile Zola’s “Thérèse Raquin,” which by my admittedly approximate count has been turned into seven plays, five films, five TV movies, three mini-series, two musicals and two operas, is back on Broadway, this time as a sexed-up vehicle for Keira Knightley, the latest aging screen idol (for a female movie star, 30 is old) to succumb to the wiles of the Roundabout Theatre Company.
It stands to reason that the erstwhile heroine of “Pirates of the Caribbean” should be making her American stage debut as Zola’s desire-crazed murderess, since his 1867 novel, stripped of its police-report prose, plays like a Bette Davis movie, with Young Bette as Thérèse and Old Bette (Judith Light) as her mother-in-law. Any way you gnaw it, though, “Thérèse Raquin” is a dreary hambone that once was shocking but is now quaint, and Helen Edmundson, whose sole previous Broadway credit was the inept 2007 stage version of “Coram Boy,” has done no better by Zola. The pacing is arthritic—it takes a good 40 minutes for the plot to get rolling—and the dialogue is…well, like this: “Sometimes I think the water is a creature. A silent animal that pretends it doesn’t see me.” As for Ms. Knightley, she gives the kind of flat, underprojected performance you’d expect from an untrained Broadway debutante with limited stage experience…
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To read my review of Sylvia, go here.
To read my review of Thérèse Raquin, go here.