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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 17, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: `Pygmalion’

Remember "Pygmalion"? It’s "My Fair lady"

without the Ascot Gavotte. If you share the English-speaking world’s

fondness for George Bernard Shaw’s clever and witty version of Greek

mythology, you will admit that his most adored comedy more than holds

its own even without Lerner and Loewe’s "loverly" score.

To state it briefly, the richness of the score and the faithfulness

to their source has made it impossible not to miss the tunes even

in a terrific production of the play. It’s hard for me to believe,

but I haven’t seen George Bernard Shaw’s chestnut since a Roundabout

Theater production in 1991. Before that, the only production I’d seen

was on Broadway in 1987 (and that unfortunately served primarily as

a self-aggrandizing showcase for Peter O’Toole). As for this new production,

as directed by Bonnie J. Monte for the Shakespeare Theater of New

Jersey, it is easily the best I’ve ever seen.

Beerbohm Tree, the distinguished actor who had the honor of portraying

Professor Henry Higgins in the 1914 London premiere (No, I wasn’t

there) once confessed to the audience at the opening night curtain

call that "the author had been so upset by the loud and frequent

applause that he couldn’t stand it any longer and fled in disgust."

I suspect if Shaw were still alive to see his cherished classic, he

would be just as aghast at the loud and frequent applause that acknowledged

the excellence of individual players and scenes in Madison. All of

it deserved, I may add.

Under the nearly perfect conditions provided by Monte’s formidable

company we are able to say that the work’s inexhaustible charm has

been duly captured. What with a real honest to goodness curtain (you

don’t see them part very often these day) to reveal designer Charles

W. Wittreich Jr.’s three handsome settings, all enhanced by Steven

Rosen’s lighting, I found myself having a wonderful time. The casting

is not only nearly perfect, but also enviably suggestive of what fun

these artful Shavians seem to be having.

Paul Niebanck, whose performances over the past six seasons at the

Shakespeare Theater has been consistently impressive, is a revelation

as the emotionally remote, splendidly disagreeable Henry Higgins.

Projecting no less a character of duplicitous, yet equally crafty,

objectivity is Jim Mohr, as Alfred Doolittle. Watching Mohr’s rise

from "one of the undeserving poor" into a member of "middle

class morality," is not only one of the principal joys of the

play but of the season.

No less a chip off Doolittle’s block is Victoria Mack, as Eliza. Mack

stakes a convincing neo-feminist claim on the flower girl, who is

transformed as much by her own will and determination as by Higgins’

heartlessly persevering linguistic instructions, into a faux English

duchess. In the process of achieving this, Mack cannily wins our admiration

and our hearts. And she looks "loverly" in costumer Karen

A. Ledger’s Victorian fashions, notably a crimson ball gown.

Of particular pleasure is the restraint that Mack embraces in the

opening Convent Garden scene in which she is obliged (by Shaw) to

ham up the wailing. Mrs. Higgins’ "at home" reception provides

Mack with the truest frame for displaying her comedic resources as

well as Eliza’s blooming charm.

The supporting players, who are called upon to exemplify the superficiality

of class distinctions, are in fine form. Peggy Scott is delightful

as the no-nonsense housekeeper Mrs. Pierce. Joseph Costa as Colonel

Pickering and Elizabeth Shepherd as Mrs. Higgins offer pleasant reminders

that human relationship is what Shaw is writing about.

Over the years, beginning with Mrs. Patrick Campbell in 1914, and

continuing through the subsequent revivals with Lynn Fontanne, Frieda

Inescort, Ruth Chatterton, and Gertrude Lawrence, not to mention Wendy

Hiller and Leslie Howard in the exemplary 1933 film version, the critics

have carped about the mature ages of the actresses who played Eliza.

It’s "not bloody likely" they will be carping when they see

this beguiling and radiant young Eliza.

— Simon Saltzman

Pygmalion, Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, Drew

University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600. $23 to $43.

To Sunday, September 28.

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