Sunday, October 21, 2007


What a disappointment. I’ve read this play and saw the old movie, but I had never seen it live and wonder how much that contributed to my letdown. It is a really talky play, at least in the first act. In the second act Shaw’s superwoman appears and that’s always entertaining. In “Pygmalion” the superwoman is, of course, Eliza Doolittle, and in this production she is engagingly played by Claire Danes making her Broadway debut. Unfortunately, for the most part, the rest of the cast sounds as if they’re doing a first read-through -- there’s just no life in their performances.

Danes gives no hint of being a first-timer, unlike other Hollywood actors who have tried Broadway recently; the worst of which has to have been Julia Roberts whose hands shook and who appeared so scared she could barely move and spoke her lines mechanically. Danes, on the other hand, seems right at home, she owns her space, to use a popular phrase. This is even more remarkable considering I was there on a critics’ night, always a stressful time for actors, and the performance following the Times review, which had panned her. Despite all of this she seemed fully in command of her character, and as if she were enjoying herself as well.

I liked two other performers -- Helen Carey as Mrs. Higgins and Boyd Gaines as Colonel Pickering. Gaines was moving in his most recent performance in last season’s Tony winner, “Journey’s End,” a production that had me in tears at the end.

An actor from whom I expected more was Jay O. Sanders, who had been fabulous as Bottom this summer in the Delacorte’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In “Pygmalion” he’s a wooden Mr. Doolittle, definitely sounding as if he were at an early reading and not the real thing.

The most damaging performance for the production, though, came from Jefferson Mays as Professor Higgins. Yes, we do all have an image of the character from Rex Harrison’s portrayal in the movie musical “My Fair Lady,” and yes, there’s an immature element to Higgins, but Mays plays him at the maturity level of an eighth grade boy. This never worked, not in any scene. Too bad. This actor bowled me over in “I Am My Own Wife,’” his Tony-winning role from several years ago.

Maybe this play just doesn’t transcend the test of time. I suspect, though, that it's this cast that drags it down. It would have been loverly to see it otherwise.

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