There’s a difference between a bad performance and miscasting. The former can be redeemed, the latter is insurmountable. A. R. Gurney’s Sylvia a few years ago provided a classic example: This is the story of a happily married middle-aged man who gets a new puppy and discovers that his emotional investment in the dog is destabilizing his marriage. At the height of his infatuation, he sits on the couch and serenades her with Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” At the Manhattan Theatre Club, the pooch was played by Sarah Jessica Parker (pre-“Sex and the City”) and she was awfully cute with her hair pulled in high-tied bunches to suggest doggie ears and her gangly legs romping round the room. With Miss Parker occupying the kennel, the play’s conceit—a pet as sublimated adultery—was plausible.

In London, they cast Zoe Wanamaker—a terrific actress with a much...


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