by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by David Grindley

Starring Jefferson Mays, Claire Danes, Boyd Gaines,
Jay O. Sanders and Helen Carey

A Production of the Roundabout Theatre Company at
The American Airlines Theatre / 227 West 42nd Street / (212) 719-1300

Reviewed by David Spencer 


Well, of course, the interesting thing is that Pygmalion is not My Fair Lady. There's a popular misconception that the musical is simply Pygmalion with songs dropped in, but to attend the play puts that to rest, and perhaps also explains how the glib description has been "absorbed" by so many theatrefolk. It's because certain pivotal scenes adapted by Alan Jay Lerner retain as much Shaw dialogue as possible. But the musical contains a number of scenes only alluded to in the play, expands highly upon a lackluster character (Freddy) and makes a usually unmemorable throwaway of a crucial one (Higgins' mother); plus it "opens up" the locales to include Covent Garden and a posh ballroom, as well as the environs outside Higgins' home.


     Indeed, when one watches Pygmalion, one wonders that it could ever have suggested so large a musical as MFL, because, despite the long speeches of dialectic and debate that Shaw so loved, it's a rather streamlined, compact and very intimate affair.


     And certainly that's the way director David Grindley and his cast play it at the American Airlines Theatre under the Roundabout banner.


     Yet for all its solid professionalism, there's an odd touch of—I don't know how else to put it best, so bear with me through an explanation—community, no, correction, clubhouse theatre gestalt to it. By which I mean, few of the leads are ideally cast; yet they're all connected, via Roundabout or prior association, and it's as if someone said, "Hey, listen, come to the party, kind of dress up as the character you like and, you know, we'll make it work somehow."


     Indeed, it takes a while to warm to some of the key performances, as well as a while for those performances to warm up. At first Jefferson Mays' Higgins seems strident and prissy, rather than stubborn and argumentative. And Claire Danes' cockney Eliza is too common, by which I don't mean crude so much as without the spark of charm that makes her character pop out. As for Jay O. Sanders as Alfred Doolittle (Eliza's father), the dustman destined for better things against his will, he seems like a corporate executive doing a really intelligent approximation of what he thinks a Cockney dustman is.


     Yet in time, the actors seem to shift the play into an alternate reality; it happens gradually, but it's achieved at the point where each gets to expose a layer beneath the surface behavior: When Mays gets to make Higgins vulnerable, when Danes gets to make Eliza ambitious, when Sanders gets to make Alfie—well, I'm not sure. Sanders, I think you just get used to him, because he's a forceful presence due to his size and the resonance of his voice. He kind of forces you into submission. And as that settle in.


     This process is helped and grounded immeasurably by the two actors who are quite suited to their roles naturally, Boyd Gaines as Colonel Pickering and Helen Carey as Higgins' mother. (Nor should we overlook the smaller but key role of Higgins' beleaguered headmistress of house, Mrs. Pearce, played to exasperated perfection by Brenda Wehle.)


     Though the sets (Jonathan Fensom) are appropriately in proportion, there is distracting bigness to the emphasis with which they are turntabled into place. As theatrically exciting as that kind of thing can be to see, I wonder if the experience of the play needs us to see it. And I think not.


     But that's a small carp for an interesting and worthy production of a play one doesn't get to see terribly often.


     Don't let My Fair Lady rhetoric tell you different...

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