nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
October 21, 2007
It's a testament to how much the creative team behind Roundabout Theatre Company's new revival of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion make this familiar story their own that I did not once think about, or compare the actors to, those I had seen play these parts before. Regardless of whom you've seen embody the lead roles of Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle previously—and I, personally, have seen quite a few folks do so—none of them will cross your mind once while watching Jefferson Mays and Claire Danes, Roundabout's current Higgins and Eliza, face off. Mays and Danes take such authoritative ownership of these well-known characters that you may not want to imagine anyone else playing them. The same thing applies to everyone else in director David Grindley's sublime and entertaining production.
The other fascinating thing about this Pygmalion is how much Grindley & Co.'s confident take on the script exposes its inherent sexism. Holy cow! The play's chauvinistic and condescending attitude towards women, which I assume was much more commonplace back when it debuted back in 1912, looks horribly short-sighted in places now. Its once timely sentiments have aged about as well as those in, say, The Merchant of Venice. If Shaw weren't so funny, Pygmalion might be completely intolerable.
But, thankfully, Shaw is very funny—so much so that just when one thinks Pygmalion might be teetering on the brink of full-on hatred towards women, the author saves it by acknowledging the clueless prejudice of his two male protagonists, Higgins and Colonel Pickering. Oh, and he also throws in some salient points about class, privilege, and humanity. Okay, so maybe Shaw knew what he was doing after all.
The story of Pygmalion, about an upper crust British linguistics professor who takes a common lower class street urchin under his wing, is known to audiences worldwide now thanks to Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's legendary 1956 musical adaptation, My Fair Lady. Theatergoers may be surprised to discover that Lerner and Loewe delve deeper into the dramatic arc and journey of Higgins and Eliza's relationship than Shaw does. That's because My Fair Lady views their partnership more as a budding May-December romance. Shaw, however, makes it abundantly clear that Higgins and Eliza are not hooking up, nor are they interested in doing so. Pygmalion's interest in their pairing is strictly for the sake of examining the class struggle between the haves and the have-nots, and, of course, the battle of the sexes.
For instance, there's the way Higgins and Pickering revel in "their" success at passing Eliza off as a proper lady at a dinner party, and completely ignore her as if she had nothing to do with it. Higgins takes her on in the first place because he likes the challenge: "She's so deliciously low, so horribly dirty!" Eliza is a science project for him, and he treats her accordingly. But, Eliza, who truly wants to better herself, wants—nay, demands—respect for her efforts. She knows she's smart and capable, despite her lower class background, and wants acknowledgement.
Then, there's Eliza's father, Alfred P. Doolittle, a conniving scoundrel who'd rather sell his daughter for a five pound note than earn it with a hard day's work. When asked if he has any morals, Doolittle replies, "Can't afford them, Governor. Neither could you if you was as poor as me." That says as much about the social atmosphere and flexible morality in Pygmalion as anything else here (as does the fact that Higgins does, indeed, "buy" Eliza for a fiver).
You may ask, at this point, how any of this could be funny or entertaining. Leave it to Shaw to recognize his characters's foibles, but to keep them totally in the dark about them. Thus, it is easy to laugh at Higgins's imperious sexism because he doesn't have a clue about how thoughtless and insensitive he is. On the flip side, it's just as easy to laugh at Eliza because she has no idea how wild and unsavory she looks to the rest of the world.
Grindley gets it, though—just as Shaw did—and exploits the gap between the characters' own self-awareness (which remains consistently low throughout) and the audience's expectations of them beautifully. The comedy virtually explodes in places thanks to his efforts and those of his excellent cast. Jefferson Mays is delightfully condescending as Higgins, playing him as a spoiled and petulant child who bullies everyone into doing things his way, and who sullenly pouts in the corner when they don't. Claire Danes matches him for effort, playing Eliza as a woman who is centered at the core by her own dignity and self-respect. Best of all is Jay O. Sanders as Doolittle: he turns this famously popular role into a hilariously showstopping occasion to make one wish that Doolittle had gotten a play of his own. It might very well be the finest performance yet in Sanders's already distinguished career.
Special mention, as well, to Pygmalion's trio of main supporting players—Helen Carey as Mrs. Higgins (Henry's mom), Brenda Wehle as Mrs. Pearce (Higgins's put-upon housekeeper), and the always terrific Boyd Gaines as Pickering—all of whom do standout work here.
Pygmalion is the latest in what is becoming an increasingly long line of top-notch revivals from Roundabout Theatre Company. Would it be going too far to say that, at this point, no one else in town does big budget Broadway revivals better than them? I think not. Check this one out, and see what I mean.