George Bernard Shaw was a visionary, a man ahead of his time, and though he lived 100 years ago, he is a man for all times. This extraordinary writer has left us a stunning legacy of 63 plays, but his most famous is probably "Pygmalion," no small thanks to Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe who turned it into "My Fair Lady."
It is a timely story about nature vs. nurture -- or can you turn a sow's ear into a silk purse -- as well as a close look at male/female relationships, men behaving badly, and middle-class morality.
Eliza Doolittle is the sow's ear, making her living selling flowers at Covent Garden. Henry Higgins, a phonetics expert, hears the "baggage" make her awful sounds, and bets his friend Pickering that he could pass her off as a Lady within six months. And by George, he does it.
Liza talks the talk and walks the walk, only after the Ascot ball, she has no place to talk and walk. She is no longer fit for street life, yet she isn't a Lady either, not as far as Victorian society is concerned. And when her triumph at the ball goes unappreciated by Higgins, she berates him for it. He responds with "presumptuous insect," and Liza leaves to take refuge in his mother's home, but not before throwing a pair of slippers at him. When he comes after her, he is berated yet again, this time by his mother. Higgins' response, deliciously dramatized by Jefferson Mays, is to sit in a corner, with a pout on his lips, a scowl on his face, and arms tightly crossed on his chest. One expects he'd next suck his thumb. When Liza does appear, she takes him on, takes charge, and self-confidently takes her stand as an independent woman.
What writing! What insight! There is no female writer, before or since, who has written more profoundly about the wrongs perpetrated upon woman by man than Shaw. And Claire Danes does justice to every one of his words, with a passion that makes the play more human and intimate than ever.
Danes is a complete surprise. In her stage debut -- on Broadway, no less -- she is every bit the elegant and dignified Eliza after her extreme makeover, a delight for all theatergoers who've witnessed the embarrassing performances of other popular screen stars such as Ashley Judd ("Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"), Julia Roberts ("Three Days of Rain"), and Denzel Washington ("Julius Caesar").
She has style, charm, wit, and a surprising amount of stage presence, all of which serve her well, and you'll warm to her quite quickly. Certainly Mays does. As Higgins, he plays the role not as the erudite, regal snob we associate with Higginses of the past, but as a petulant, spoiled, socially immature single man who lacks the genteel nature Eliza now craves.
The chemistry between them is volatile, and we want more than ever for them to get together, partly because Mays is so young. With skin that looks as if it never sprouted a whisker, and being much closer in age to Eliza than the iconic Rex Harrison had been, a romance between the two, though it never takes place, seems plausible.
Col. Pickering, played in true gentlemanly fashion by Boyd Gaines, is Higgins' foil in this classic. It is he who treats Eliza like a lady, never forgetting his manners. But itï¿½s Jay O. Sanders, as the "undeserving poor" wretch, Alfred Doolittle, who steals the show. Undergoing a rapid transformation himself, mirroring his daughter's, he tells us in great detail that he now must succumb to "middle class morality," including marriage.
Switching his Victorian doo-rag for top hat and tails, this ne'er-do-well does better than most. His blatherings about the middle class bring out Shaw's satire more than the other characters.
Altogether, with the excellent though infrequently seen Helen Carey as Henry's mother, and Brenda Wehle as Mrs. Pearce, this fresh production of "Pygmalion" shows off Shaw and the actors at their best.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus
"Mr. Maysï¿½s Henry seems so hermetically self-involved, almost to the point of autism, that he never connects at all with Eliza. And without some kind of relationship between this Pygmalion and his Galatea, what you have is less a play than a historical tableau with speeches."
New York Times
"Has plenty of class. And, by George, it's always compelling and often delicious, even if it does feel a tad claustrophobic. Claire Danes, making her stage debut as Eliza Doolittle, beams confidence as the Cockney flower girl made into a society lady. Funny and feisty, she turns a scene in which Eliza makes polite conversation about the weather into something with gale-force hilarity."
New York Daily News
"Jefferson Mays (Higgins), seems more like a shopkeeper than a professor. He is shrill, abrasive and totally sexless. Col. Pickering, as played by the normally excellent Boyd Gaines, fades away into characterless, sidekick enthusiasm, while Jay O. Sanders does even less than little as the Cockney dustman, Doolittle. Which leaves the enchanting Danes, making her professional stage debut...., she gently but firmly dusts the floor with the Broadway professionals around her."
New York Post
"Claire Danes has done herself no favors by making her stage debut as Eliza Doolittle...Nor is this so-called Eliza the only disappointment. How odd to find Mays so overwrought and unpersuasive in the juicy role of Henry Higgins"
"It's a pleasure to see how nicely the 95-year-old play can still tickle viewers in Roundabout's first-class revival." & "Sometimes doing less can achieve more -- even on flashy Broadway -- and the understated ways of this "Pygmalion" make for a beguiling time."
"The unobjectionable result, directed by David Grindley, has a mothbally, duty-bound heft to it, a sort of grim-visaged doggedness that brings to mind high school assignments of the "finish Act III by Wednesday" variety. The pupils here are clearly bright, resourceful, and committed to getting a good grade. But by focusing so intently on their best behavior ï¿½ or, in one prominent case, on their worst behavior ï¿½ they allow Shaw's epigrammatic wit, both stern and sparkling, to slip through their well-trained fingers."
New York Sun
"This being a comedy of manners and ideas, as well as a period piece and British, it requires a good deal from American actors, yet, by George (or Bernard), it pretty much gets it. Only in one place does it fall down seriously: in the casting of Jefferson Mays as Higgins. Claire Danes, who, contrary to preceding malevolent rumors, is a marvelous heroine."
"'Mays' idiosyncratic yet thoroughly effective portrait ..(is) the centrepiece of director David Grindley's strong production. That brings us to the evening's other major plus - Claire Danes as a charming, most appealing Eliza Doolittle. Danes, making her Broadway debut, holds her own with the other more experienced members of the cast. You will... remember the remarkable performances of Mays and Danes in this spirited revival.
"Roundabout's charm-deprived revival of the 1914 play is a starchy, mostly joyless affair." & "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."