nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 4, 2005
Nowadays, everybody knows My Fair Lady—but who really knows Pygmalion? Shaw's provocative and very funny play was a theatre staple until Lerner & Loewe turned it into the most popular musical of the mid-20th century, but since then it has been performed far less frequently: my count is only one Broadway revival of Pygmalion since 1960 against at least four My Fair Ladys.
So it's interesting and fun to get a chance to see Pygmalion on stage. Jean Cocteau Rep revived it earlier this season and I missed it; but I caught it during this two-week return engagement and I advise you to try and get to it as well. If you do, you'll get a chance to evaluate first-hand the difference between Alan Jay Lerner's traditionally romantic ending to the story and Shaw's more pragmatic one; you'll also get to experience one of the funniest comic scenes ever written for the stage (the one in which Eliza Doolittle makes her first "public" appearance and, to the dismay of the proper ladies and gentlemen surrounding her, talks animatedly about the death of her aunt, a lady for whom gin was "mother's milk," who was apparently "done in" for her newest hat).
You will, too, be in the happy company of some of the most engaging characters that Shaw or anyone ever devised to put onto the stage. At the center is Henry Higgins, the gruff, spoiled professor of phonetics who fancies himself such a genius that he can blithely boast that after six months of lessons he could pass off a cockney flower girl as a duchess at Buckingham Palace. Jay Nickerson is Higgins in this production, and he's marvelous—he gets the rudeness, the stubbornness, and the impatience with anybody not up to his level; he also finds the insouciance and childlike passions that make this insufferable fellow somehow admirable. The subject of his experiment is Eliza Doolittle, of course; the "squashed cabbage leaf" (Higgins's term) who is taught to talk proper and act ladylike, with the result that the fiery and intelligent young woman within is unleashed, articulate and at last self-confident. Kate Holland takes the role, and gives a decent account of it, especially in the first act; she doesn't quite demonstrate, however, the innate sturdy elegance to make it clear that she's a match for Higgins and more. The chemistry between Nickerson and Holland is admirable, though; they're playing an intellectual love story that allows us to root for them to find a way to stay together, even though the playwright seems not to want to end his play that way. (That's what I meant earlier about contrasting Shaw's ending with Lerner's: especially as played by Nickerson and Holland, we're ready for Higgins and Eliza to stay together, but Shaw won't have it. I like My Fair Lady's prettier conclusion better.)
Surrounding the pair are a number of delightful, colorful characters. Chief among these is Eliza's father, Alfred P. Doolittle, an eloquent dustman who is the playwright's de facto spokesman and, in my opinion, the play's real protagonist. Doolittle turns up in Higgins's Wimpole Street study moments after the "experiment" with Eliza begins, to "touch" the gentlemen for a fiver—essentially, he's ready to sell his daughter. But a passing comment that Higgins makes in jest sometime later has devastating consequences for Doolittle, and after the intermission he's back, decked out in top hat and tails, a professional man now, the beneficiary of a wealthy man's eccentric legacy, and an unhappy new member of the Middle Class (he had reveled in his prior position as one of the "undeserving poor"). Doolittle's transformation, without benefit of any lessons whatsoever, is what Shaw is really writing about in Pygmalion: the foolish arbitrariness of class is wiped out only with money, not with speech patterns; and the thing that's gained is hypocrisy disguised as morality.
Angus Hepburn, a stalwart of the Cocteau repertory for several years now, has his best and juiciest role yet in Doolittle, and he plays it to the hilt. It's one of the most thoroughly rewarding performances on stage anywhere in NYC right now.
Tim Morton is Colonel Pickering, the scholar of Indian dialects who becomes Higgins's friend, roommate, and co-conspirator; he also foots the bills for Eliza's lessons and teaches Eliza manners (as Higgins cannot). Morton is a perfect fit in this role, making Pickering instantly likable even if a bit of a fool. Lynn Marie Macy recasts Higgins's housekeeper Mrs. Pearce as a stern taskmistress for her so-called master in a novel portrayal that nevertheless makes complete sense. Gina Carey plays Higgins's warmer, exasperated mother; Sara Jeanne Asselin and Dannaher Dempsey excel in the smaller roles of Clara and Freddy Hill, a pair of young people whom Eliza encounters at her first tea; and Ramona Floyd is fine as their dignified mother, Mrs. Hill.
A word needs to be added about Michael Carnahan's set design, which transforms itself from Higgins's eclectically masculine study to his mother's rosy drawing room with ingenious ease. Viviane Galloway's costumes are less on point, however, particularly Eliza's ball gown, which is just not beautiful or magnificent enough to underline the Cinderella nature of her tale (and that's true whether or not she gets the prince in the end).
All in all, this is a smart and entertaining take on a play that we probably think we know better than we actually do. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to see it, and recommend that you do the same.