Friday, October 19, 2007

Did Pygmalion Suffer From Critically Great Deigns?

Did Pygmalion Suffer From Critically Great Deigns?

The first revival in twenty years of George Bernard Shaw's classic Pygmalion opened last night at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre. Reviews were decidedly mixed as some critics could have dissed all night.

Proclaiming that it "has plenty of class," Joe Dziemianowicz of New York's Daily News offers one of the most positive reviews: "[B]y 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....Mays plays the part as a prickly mama's boy prone to tantrums and bad behavior. It's daring. And it works....Pygmalion all but sings without any music. I could have watched all night."

Dazzled by the "beguiling time" he had, Michael Sommers of Newark's Star Ledger is similarly positive: "[I]t's a pleasure to see how nicely the 95-year-old play can still tickle viewers in Roundabout's first-class revival, which opened yesterday at American Airlines Theatre. The subject for Shaw's social satire -- the superficial nature of class distinctions -- is long outdated. Yet his 1912 story about the unlikely association of a phonetics expert with a Cockney flower girl remains entertaining....Making a lovely Broadway debut, Claire Danes ably traces the heroine's flowering from a 'quashed cabbage leaf' of Covent Garden into a cultivated beauty who enchants an embassy party. Initially performing with a Cockney yowl that sounds as authentic as her later elegant tones -- as well as a consistently graceful physicality -- Danes is a spirited yet sensitive Eliza."

Saying this Pygmalion is "enjoyable enough," Bloomberg's John Simon is mostly upbeat: "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....There is, however, compensation in a very pleasant surprise: the Eliza of movie actress Claire Danes, who, contrary to preceding malevolent rumors, is a marvelous heroine....She even achieves that elegantly elongated English-rose look."

Despite his awe for the "dazzling Claire Danes" New York Post's Clive Barnes gives the show two stars: "David Grindley's sober, somber, dark reading of the text, joined by Jonathan Fensom's meager sets and costumes and Jason Taylor's dimmish lighting, does the playwright few favors....Jefferson Mays, who plays Higgins here, seems more like a shopkeeper than a professor. He is shrill, abrasive and totally sexless."

Citing what he calls a "mothbally, duty-bound heft," Eric Grode of the New York Sun mostly pans: "Mr. Grindley likes to give audiences something to chew on — even choke on — as they leave the theater. And Pygmalion has always encouraged a director's impulse to tinker, particularly in its final moments....This newly melancholy interpretation runs completely afoul of Shaw's printed directions, and yet it could be psychologically defensible....Mr. Grindley has fallen prey to the frequent habit of defanging Colonel Pickering, Higgins's genteel but only marginally less thoughtless co-conspirator; the poised decency that comes so naturally to Boyd Gaines actually diminishes the role slightly....Ms. Danes lacks the tonal versatility to rise above this static conception of the role."

Linda Winer of Newsday laments: "(Danes) has done herself no favors by making her stage debut as Eliza Doolittle....She likes to lunge during excited moments, but her pounce always seems a beat off the narrative....We appreciate Mays' determination to escape the shadow of Rex Harrison by re-imagining Higgins as a far less dashing fellow. But Mays turns him into a Richie Rich of a mama's boy, a busy and obnoxious twit with crazy eyes and exaggerated nervous habits, whose feet don't touch the floor when he sits on tables, which he does a lot. Of course, despite the happy end in My Fair Lady, Shaw never meant this to be a romantic comedy. But without any chemical buzz between teacher and student, Grindley's decision to tack a sentimental spasm on Shaw's clear-eyed final moment feels especially contrived."

Calling it a "misfired revival," Ben Brantley of The New York Times apparently was hoping to dance all night, failing to remember that this non-musical was not about love: "For there is not a whisper of mutual attraction between this production’s Eliza and Henry....(Danes') game, conscientious portrayal doesn’t make much of an impression here. The main event, the performance that’s most likely to provoke heated after-theater discussion, is Mr. Mays’s epicene Henry Higgins. Looking like a cross between the 1930s child star Freddie Bartholomew and Nathan Lane at his most impish, the smooth-faced Mr. Mays shatters the cranky-but-sexy mold of Henry Higginses past....Maybe I’m just one of those sentimental fools Shaw held in such contempt."

Well of course you are, Mr. Brantley! At least you hold no pretense about that.

For the record, I liked it much more than many of the critics.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Pygamalion (The SOB Review) (October 19, 2007)
Come What Mays, My Fair Danes Opens Tonight (October 18, 2007)
Pygmalion Revival: There Is Nothing Like A Danes? (July 10, 2007)

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