Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 18, 2007
Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by David Grindley. Set and costume design by Jonathan Fensom. Light design by Jason Taylor. Sound design by Gregory Glarke. Dialect coach Majella Hurley. Hair and wig design by Richard Orton. Cast: Claire Danes, Jefferson Mays, Boyd Gaines, Jay O. Sanders, Helen Carey, Brenda Wehle, Kerry Bishé, Kieran Campion, Sandra Shipley, Tony Carlin, Jonathan Fielding, Robin Moseley, Doug Stender, Karen Walsh, Jennifer Armour, Brad Heikes, Curtis Shumaker.
Higgins may be talking about Liza Doolittle, the barely scrubbed Cockney flower girl who's braved her way to his Wimpole Street laboratory to purchase English lessons. But his words resonate unavoidably in your own ears all throughout David Grindley's production: "What is life but a series of inspired follies? The difficulty is to find them to do. Never lose a chance: it doesn't come every day." Thankfully, Grindley hasn't lost his. Rather, he has assumed these words as his own directorial philosophy, and ensured that the follies filling his own Pygmalion are generally of the inspired kind.
Granted, one might not immediately see how all the elements fit together. The conceptual Covent Garden set (like the costumes, designed by Jonathan Fensom) that kicks off the proceedings is little more than stone pillars floating amid eerie, endless black, an odd tone for opening an evening in which the real world would seem to be the only suitable locale. Doesn't young film star Claire Danes glitter just a little too brightly for Liza, the plaything of a God who eventually achieves her own omniscience? And leading man (and three-time Tony winner) Boyd Gaines masquerading in Georgian gentility as Colonel Pickering could likewise appear unusual and unwise in a role so often stationed off to the side.
Yet taken in tandem with Grindley and his irreplaceable Higgins, Jefferson Mays, they're all crucial parts of an early, undeniable treat of the Broadway season. If many of the lengthy speeches still ring more with the voice of Shaw than of the characters speaking them, and if the sprawling story still lurches more here than in the 1938 film (to say nothing of Alan Jay Lerner's even leaner adaptation in the blockbuster 1956 musical My Fair Lady), Liza's transformation from "draggletailed guttersnipe" to dependent to independent woman is always a swift-moving spiritual and linguistic travelogue.
It must be said that this is less than a life-changing exhumation along the lines of last season's Journey's End, which Grindley also directed and in which Gaines and Mays both starred. Unlike that forgotten classic, Pygmalion's colorful wit and the enduring popularity of My Fair Lady have kept it at the forefront of the dramatic consciousness. It's always ready for each new generation to explain in its own dialect exactly what the complex relationship between Higgins and Liza means to them.
Grindley's take is a gentle revitalization that punches up the laugh lines and eliminates all traces of the stuffiness that so often dog other plays from Shaw and from the era of Pygmalion's creation (the early 1910s). His method of modernizing it, however, lies mostly in Mays.
Yet there's no gimmickry here. In fact, it's difficult to imagine the milquetoast Mays being able to tackle the role any other way. Not every actor can convince you to overlook Higgins's thoughtless brusqueness, which frequently translates as a disdain for others so palpable that you can't understand why any of them put up with his antics in the first place. Yet Mays pours on every drop of his natural boyish charm, becoming so genuinely genial that you experience yourself the strange but honest fascination he holds for others in the play. He's so likeable that even as he exerts ever more of his authority as the ultimate spoiled mama's boy, you can't force yourself to see him as anything other than one of the "pretty pair of babies" playing with the "live doll" that is Liza.
As Higgins's partner in crime, Gaines does not find the same enthusiasm. His Pickering is kind, avuncular, and unremarkable, exactly the kind of man usually trodden over by the Higginses of history. Gaines's take is not far removed from the father-figure lieutenant he played in Journey's End, and if that doesn't grant Pickering much new excitement, it's still a solidly enjoyable, traditional portrayal.
Jay O. Sanders breaks similarly few boundaries as Liza's money-hungry, morals-deficient father, but is delightfully matter-of-fact about everything from "selling" his daughter to selling himself into the prison of the middle class. Both Carey and Kerry Bishé (as Clara Eynsford-Hill, an unintended social casualty of Liza's first public appearance) do juicier, more adventurous work as two women affected in very different ways by Higgins's roundabout teaching methods.
Of his primary student, however, the situation is less clear-cut. Danes is excellent in the first two acts when Liza is at her most "deliciously low," and a scream when melding flawless tones with unbearable subject matter at Mrs. Higgins's tea party. She's less sure once the duchess has ostensibly emerged in full - she sounds like she's still trapped in the mud with her flowers, working too hard to maintain the lady who, Shaw and Higgins contend, was always inside waiting to be released.
This is undoubtedly intentional, a nod to the most likely realistic outcome of this teacher and this student. But realism has never been the point of Pygmalion, which draws its title and its most elemental plot points from Greek mythology. Shaw is, in effect, detailing a new Creation, with benefits and dangers that must be respected; the absence of loftier overtones here strips the play's final scenes of some of their richness, especially when the deity sculpting the marble is as unpredictable and mischievous as the one Mays plays. Still, that can't prevent most of the rest of Grindley's production from being divine on its own terms.