Archive Review: Pygmalion

From October 2007:

Goddess bless the Roundabout, indeed, since their other Broadway space currently hosts one of the best George Bernard Shaw revivals I’ve ever seen. Certainly this astutely executed Pygmalion is yards closer to Shaw’s witty spirit than their heavy-handed revival of his Heartbreak House last season.

In case you somehow missed the play’s famous musical adaptation My Fair Lady, the plot goes something like this: When self-important phonetics expert Henry Higgins bets his colleague Colonel Pickering that he can teach a Cockney flower girl to act and speak like a lady, he gets more than he bargained for: Eliza Doolittle provokes his interest, his anger, and ultimately, his passion.

As her lessons progress, it becomes obvious that it is Henry who has the most to learn about what good manners really mean. My Fair Lady, however, romanticizes Higgins, making him a likable rogue, especially in Rex Harrison’s film portrayal. Pygmalion presents a much pettier Higgins, and a much more self-possessed Eliza (she leaves him in the play, but not in the musical), making the play decidedly protofeminist (while Lady is suffused with Higgins own cryptomisogyny).

The amazing Jefferson Mays (of I Am My Own Wife fame) spares no quarter: his Higgins captures all of the man’s childishness and prejudice, which makes his rare moments of kindness all the more startling. Mays has audaciously chosen to lean on everything unpleasant about this character, a choice with dazzling results. Claire Danes is a fittingly strong-willed Eliza, but Mays is without a doubt the reason to see this Pygmalion.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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