I saw a matinee of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” ten days ago. Then I read Ben Brantley’s review of the same production in the New York Times on Friday.
I am not a little dubious about Mr. Brantley as a theatre reviewer. I often think that having to choose between clarity in a review and the ability to show off how clever he is, he will invariably choose the latter. To be fair, he can be very funny. The review he wrote of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” a few years ago included the funniest line I have ever read in the paper of record. I read it standing in line to check my bag for a flight from San Juan, and even in that noisy a setting I laughed so hard that people stared at me. He wrote (if this isn’t exact, it’s pretty damn close), “Sitting through ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ is like being kicked to death by circus ponies.” The image was so clear in my mind, I could see the blue spanglies on the ponies’ backs, which is why it was funny.
But to get back to Mr. Shaw. I spent a chunk of time in college studying Shaw, and since then I have read much of and seen many productions of Shaw. I don’t think David Grindley’s production is off-base. I find it difficult to believe that he couldn’t find a better actress than Claire Danes to play Eliza, but I suspect she may not have been his first choice. Grindley keeps the play moving. This is inherently difficult, because Shavian characters love to talk. A lot.
There are five acts in “Pygmalion,” taking place in three different settings, and those set changes had better be lightning fast because contemporary audiences don’t have the patience for anything slower than that. He and Jonathan Fensom solve that problem admirably. Grindley likes to stage scenes don front and center, as Brantley points out (and my brother reminded me that “Journey’s End” was staged the same way). However, the interior sets aren’t that deep to begin with, so there are inherent staging limitations in the design.
Finally, the acting. I enjoyed Boyd Gaines, Jay O. Sanders (who I initially had TV actor prejudice against which he completely overcame), and Helen Carey. I had heard nothing good about Clarie Danes’ performance before I saw the play. She was adequate once she dropped her Cockney accent; before she did, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through five acts of her shrieking. She showed none of Eliza’s (for lack of a better word) charm, as Wendy Hiller does so well in the movie. I thought that Jefferson Mays gave the performance of a lifetime. It had brave choices in it, used the text beautifully and was mesmerizing to watch. He wasn’t a cuddly Higgins by any means, but he was a charismatic one. How great would it be to see him play Shotover in “Heartbreak House” in twenty years?