At the risk of riling the Shavian purists, one test of a good staging of “Pygmalion” is whether it can make you forget the “My Fair Lady” song cues laced through the dialogue and appreciate George Bernard Shaw’s droll reflection on class, sexual politics and social conditioning the way audiences must have before Lerner & Loewe’s enchanting musical adaptation overtook the original work in popularity. Roundabout’s charm-deprived revival of the 1914 play is a starchy, mostly joyless affair that does little to keep those unheard tunes from intruding.
Brit director David Grindley made an assured Broadway debut last season with “Journey’s End,” coaxing nuanced work from a fine ensemble and atmospheric contributions from set designer Jonathan Fensom and lighting chief Jason Taylor. But while those elements communicated a visceral sense of the claustrophobic anguish of trench warfare, the considerable overlap in approach from the same team makes them a poor fit for Shaw’s witty update of the Pygmalion-Galatea myth.
Boxing the stage into a constricted playing space in gloomy half-light made sense when depicting a WWI dugout, but far less in creating well-heeled Professor Higgins’ Wimpole Street study or the drawing room in which his urbane mother receives her guests.
The director and designers’ refusal to use the full width and height of the stage is particularly frustrating given some of the swanky period decor that’s graced recent Roundabout productions in the same theater. And the incongruously naturalistic flourish of having real water rain down in the opening scene outside the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden is hardly effective when half the cast is unable to project above the downpour.
But the design choices are less problematic here than a grating central characterization and a failure of many of the actors to connect with their roles. What’s missing most of all is an appropriately light touch from the director. This “Pygmalion” is serviceably mounted and handsomely costumed (also by Fensom) but dull, mislaying much of the humor from all but Shaw’s most indestructible scenes.
Stepping from stage experience primarily in dance pieces to her first major New York legit role, Claire Danes is an adequate Eliza Doolittle. But she lacks the self-exposure to make her transformation from caterpillar to luminous butterfly as beguiling as it should be.
Drabbed down by hair, makeup and a dowdy costume, and with much of her focus channeled into taming the Cockney accent, Danes is still too delicate and wispy to be entirely persuasive as the grubby flower girl. She’s better when she begins stiffly aping posh refinement and then blossoms, finally, into an independent-minded woman who refuses to be bullied. In the early scenes, especially, Eliza’s whininess dampens the pluck that allows the character to stand up to two men way out of her league in class, worldliness and education.
Though he’s considerably more at ease with the plummy tones of Henry Higgins, Jefferson Mays makes the phonetician an insufferable, prissy bore. “You certainly are a pretty pair of babies, playing with your live doll,” says Mrs. Higgins (Helen Carey) to her son and his partner in the bet to transform Eliza from urchin to duchess, Colonel Pickering (a stodgy Boyd Gaines, lacking his usual warmth). In Henry’s case, the accusation has never seemed truer.
Mays plays Henry as a petulant, overgrown child, prone to twitching and sulking, particularly around his disapproving mother. It’s a technically accomplished and certainly focused performance, but an unappealing one, making you wish Eliza had better aim when hurling Henry’s slippers.
Also missing the mark is Jay O. Sanders in arguably the play’s choicest role, as affable opportunist Alfred Doolittle. The boozing dustman’s wily philosophizing about marriage, parenthood, poverty, employment and middle-class morality is prime Shaw, but Sanders sinks the humor, turning dialogue into discourse. Given the actor’s recent success at finding the sly comedy in such diverse roles as George W. Bush in “Stuff Happens” and Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” his work here is disappointing. And for a character singled out by Higgins for his natural gift of rhetoric, the inability to tap the rhythms in Shaw’s speech is crippling.
Aside from Mays, who clearly relishes the role regardless of his questionable take on it, the principals generally show an inconsistent grasp of the rich language, and the director’s failure to shape momentum allows scenes to run on and on into inertia.
The most enjoyable performances come from the senior women in the cast. Brenda Wehle never pushes too hard as Henry’s housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, yet makes the most of the pragmatic woman’s long-suffering exasperation. Carey is an expert comic foil who knows her way around a clipped retort. And Sandra Shipley gets in some amusingly perplexed double takes during Eliza’s alarming introduction to polite society. Danes also rises to the occasion in that priceless scene over tea during one of Mrs. Higgins’ at-homes. Wouldn’t it be loverly if the entire production had that sparkle?