As a rule, Broadway has been very generous affording established and popular film stars an opportunity to show what they can do live and without benefit of the close-up. Many do not make the cut. Claire Danes, a film star who is making her Broadway debut, is not out of her depths. She is, in fact, quite disarming and marvelous in the Roundabout Theater production of George Bernard Shaw’s “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 the mythology, you will admit that his most adored comedy more than holds its own even without Lerner and Loewe’s “loverly” score.
I still have fond memories of a previous Roundabout production of Shaw’s ascribed “pleasant” play presented at Union Square Theater in 1991, which starred Anthony Heald and Madeleine Potter. Before that the only production I had seen was on Broadway in 1987, which unfortunately didn’t serve Shaw or the Henry of Peter O’Toole very well.
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 Danes as a particularly young and feisty Eliza.
Beerbohm Tree, the distinguished actor who had the honor of portraying Professor Henry Higgins in the 1914 London premiere (no, I wasn’t there) 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. All of it deserved, may I add.
Under the nearly perfect conditions provided by director David Grindley’s formidable company, the play’s inexhaustible charm has been captured. Setting the mood from the start were the torrents of rain that splattered the ground during the marvelous opening scene at Covent Garden. Credit goes to designer Jonathan Fensom, whose three handsome settings (he also designed the costumes) are a grand background for the delicious words, even without the music.
The casting is not only near perfect but also enviably suggestive of what fun these artful Shavians seem to be having. I say near perfect, because Jefferson Mays’s performance, as Henry Higgins, is so different from what we have come to expect in almost every way. He will strike some as being either a revelation or to others as regrettably miscast. May I suggest that Mays, who was so marvelous in the Tony-winning revival of “Journey’s End” (also directed by Grindley) and won the Tony Award in 2004 for “I Am My Own Wife,” is ten times more petulant, emotionally remote, and disagreeable than what we have come to expect.
For starters, he affixes to Henry’s generally unacceptable manners and rude behavior all the attributes of a seriously flawed mother-fixated neurotic. Mays also gives the impression that Henry’s opportunistic chauvinism is nothing less than the ranting and raving of an immature incorrigible. Considering this, it is next to impossible to imagine what, if any, attraction could exist between Henry and Eliza.
More comically crafty in his performance but no less immodestly duplicitous is Jay O. Sanders, as Alfred Doolittle. Watching Sanders, whose performances (Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Lone Star Love,” and as George W. Bush in “Stuff Happens”) is a treat to witness as he rises (he’s quite tall and imposing to begin with) from being “one of the undeserving poor” into a member of “middle class morality.”
For her part, Danes stakes a convincing neo-feminist claim on the flower girl transformed into a faux English duchess as much by her own will and determination as by Higgins’ heartlessly persevering linguistic instructions. In the process of achieving this, Danes cannily wins our admiration and our hearts. This is accomplished all the while she is delighting us with her refreshing comical ingenuity. Of particular pleasure is the restraint that Danes 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 Danes 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. Brenda Wehle is delightful as the no-nonsense housekeeper, Mrs. Pierce. Boyd Gaines as a notably compassionate Colonel Pickering and Helen Carey, as the ever classy Mrs. Higgins, offer pleasant reminders of the benefits that come with good breeding and gentle manners. Notwithstanding a clueless and irritating Henry Higgins, it is the didactic brilliance of “Pygmalion” that remains to entertain. ***
“Pygmalion,” through Sunday, December 16, Roundabout Theater Company at the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street. $51.25 to $96.25. 212-719-1300.