Thursday, November 15, 2007

Pygmalion (Roundabout Theatre Company)

BOTTOM LINE: a witty, interesting story with the creepiest Henry Higgins you've ever seen. Oh, and Claire Danes doesn't suck.

Pygmalion is the straight play version of the musical My Fair Lady and because it came before the musical, it's the original version of the story, told the way the playwright (George Bernard Shaw) wanted it to go. It's the story of a lower-class British girl (Eliza Doolittle, played by Danes) who meets an upper-class guy who is a master of phonetics (Henry Higgins, played by Jefferson Mays). Higgins makes a bet with his friend that he can teach the girl to act upper-class and even pass for a duchess. Eliza agrees to let him teach her and conflict ensues when she realizes that Higgins is a cold-hearted, creepy, pretentious man who only ever thought of her as an experiment. Which is NOT the way My Fair Lady portrays this relationship. Alas, this is not the musical and not only aren't there any songs, it's also in no way a love story. This play is endearing but definitely not warm and cuddly. In my opinion, the relationship between Higgins and Eliza is much more interesting this way, but there are definitely squirm-provoking moments.

Roundabout knows how to put on a show and this production is no exception. It's extremely polished and the sets and costumes are extravagant and lovely. The acting is precise and conscientious with an very talented cast under the direction of the very capable David Grindley. Maybe the reason the cast is so in sync with each other is because this isn't the first time they've shared a stage; Mays, Boyd Gaines (Colonel Pickering) and Jay O. Sanders (Mr. Doolittle) were all in Grindley's production of Journey's End last year.

Pygmalion is a funny play and this is good because when you get down to the meat of the story it's really quite creepy. Most of the relationships that are explored in this production work well and I was a big fan of the actors' individual work with their own characters. Jay O. Sanders has amazing timing and steals his scenes and the rest of the supporting cast does a great job rounding out the story. Boyd Gaines is perfect as Colonel Pickering, even though his relationship with Higgins is kind of strangely gay (I'll blame this on Shaw and not on the actors). Claire Danes acts her butt off and it's actually quite good. I'd much prefer to slam her performance but that would be unfair.

You should see Pygmalion if you're interested in the story and/or you want to see a high-quality play with an exceptional cast. If you're expecting something light and fluffy, this probably isn't your best bet. And be warned, it's not the musical and this Higgins is a bit disturbing.

(Pygmalion plays at the American Airlines Theatre until December are between $51 and $96 and are available by calling 212.719.1300. If you're under 35, get $20 tickets by signing up with for more information or call 212.719.1300)

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