by Margaret Croyden
Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by David Grindley
The Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre
West 42nd Street
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden October 16, 2007
George Bernard Shaw, the British playwright, critic, essayist and leading intellectual of his time (1856-1950) is as relevant today as he was a century ago. His derision of Britain's stratified class system dominated by those born to the manor, has always been the subject of most Shavian plays. As a satirist Shaw was superb. His sense of the absurd was brilliant and his effort to see all sides of the social and political picture was one of his virtues. With a biting wit, and a good eye and ear for the behavior of the upper classes, Shaw was the leading social critic of his time, and to be sure, the leading satirist. Even today he is celebrated for his critical view of upper class hypocrites. And he dramatized them with subtlety, witty repartee, and with obvious flair and fun. Even the poor were derided for their stupidity and folly. For him, fools existed in all classes. And he showed them for what they were.
Rather than preaching about society's ills, he created brilliant and funny dialectical arguments that elucidated different viewpoints, so that in a Shaw play, everyone one way or another is scrutinized; no one escapes his eye. "Pygmalion" written in 1913 is one of his well known plays. One supposes that after the brilliant musical adaptation of "My Fair Lady," most people may remember the plot of "Pygmalion." An upper class professor of phonetics and languages, Henry Higgins, offers Liza Doolittle, a poor, cockney flower girl, the chance to become a "lady" if she will put herself in his hands. He makes a bet with his pal, Colonel Pickering, that he could pass her off as a "Lady" in couple of months of work. First she must change her low down cockney accent to the "King's English," as spoken by the educated classes. In Britain one's accent counted, (until recently); it revealed one's class; accents were unacceptable in high society. Speaking the so called "King's English" was a must. Besides Liza must learn how to carry herself, how to behave at tea parties, what to say, what to wear, and so forth. In Britain becoming a "lady" has many rules.
The production was enjoyable but not without its flaws.
It was indeed a pleasure to hear Shaw's dialogue on stage-- dialogue that meant something. Under the direction of David Grindley, the play was fast moving; every bit of humor intact. Jefferson Mays as Henry Higgins gave the part the crackle it needed, but he was not the ideal Henry Higgins. A difficult role to be sure, Higgins is on stage throughout the evening with the wordiest part in the play. Mays captured certain aspects of the role exceedingly well. But there was one hitch. He lacked the charm and virility that the role demanded. Without that charisma, he is reduced to being just a bully. Nevertheless one can see that Mays is a terrific actor albeit the weakness of his interpretation. As Liza Doolittle Claire Danes was not brilliant and rather colorless but she did not offend either. One couldn't help thinking of the wonderful Wendy Heller or the glamorous Audrey Hepburn in the role. The most perfectly delineated character was Doolittle, Liza's father played by Jay. O. Sanders. Doolittle carries the message of the play. He complains about being in the lower classes but when he is left a small fortune, and becomes part of the middle classes, he hates that as well. In a riotous scene where he explains himself, Mr. Sanders virtually steals the show.
Boyd Gaines as Colonel Pickering, Higgins' side kick is, as expected, very English in every way--speech, carriage, diction and manner. So are the women in the play. Particularly Helen Carey in the role of Higgins' mother; plainly she knows how to play drawing room comedy. Unexpectedly I saw the movie of "May Fair Lady" on television the other day, and I couldn't help comparing the two productions. While Lerner and Loewe captured the essentials of the Shaw play and wrote one of the most brilliant scores of our time, the impact of the legitimate play was missing. The star of the show, as expected, was the music, not Shaw's lines. The composers filled in where Shaw left off even inventing a happy ending while the play leaves us wondering what happens to Liza. In an essay Shaw tells us she either marries Freddie, a suitor, or opens a flower shop. No romantic ending for Shaw. To be sure, "My Fair Lady," followed the Broadway rule for musicals: a happy ending is essential. OK. Both have their place. But it was a pleasure to see the original play on Broadway which so directly communicated Shaw's ideas.
MARGARET CROYDEN's recent book is "Conversations with Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
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