Theater Reviews

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American Airlines Theatre, New York
Through Dec. 16

In "Journey's End," British director David Grindley's previous production in New York, the lighting often was so dim that the actors were barely discernible. The opening scene in his staging of the Roundabout Theatre Co.'s Broadway revival of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" promises more of the same, with its dark, gloomy look hinting at yet another evening of eyestrain.

Ultimately, however, the darkness of the production is more tonal than physical. The director concentrates less on the play's witty comedy and the subtle love story at its center than on its often scathing commentary on class differences and sexism. This version of the play, which inspired the musical "My Fair Lady," doesn't sing in every sense of the word.

But what the production lacks in froth it more than makes up for in depth. Beautifully acted by the principals, including Claire Danes in her Broadway debut as flower girl Eliza Doolittle, it is a thoughtful and, yes, illuminating version of a work that is too often broadly played. When she's plucked from poverty by phonetics expert Henry Higgins (Jefferson Mays), who wagers that he can smooth her Cockney edges and have her walking and talking like a lady, the professor comes to care for her and even loves her in his way.

Mays infuses his Henry Higgins with an intense neuroticism conveyed through various nervous tics, including constantly fidgeting like a little boy. One has never sensed so strongly that the close relationship between he and his ever-patient mother (well played by Helen Carey) would well benefit from long-term therapy.

Boyd Gaines, a three-time Tony winner seemingly incapable of giving a bad performance, brings to his portrayal of Col. Pickering a moving dignity that well contrasts with Higgins' overbearing demeanor. As Alfred Doolittle -- who, like his daughter, becomes instantly transplanted to high society -- Jay O. Sanders delivers a subtle performance that is all the more hilarious for its restraint.

Danes clearly worked hard on her Cockney accent and to these admittedly untrained ears delivers the goods. She handles the difficult role of Eliza with a real sensitivity, carefully conveying the character's emotional ambivalence at her transformation. Even though one never quite believes that she could ever be attracted to her domineering tutor, the lack of romantic fireworks doesn't seem to hurt a production that is more interested in other things anyway.

PYGMALION
Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company
Credits:
Playwright: George Bernard Shaw
Director: David Grindley
Set/costume designer: Jonathan Fensom
Lighting designer: Jason Taylor
Sound designer: Gregory Clarke
Cast:
Eliza Doolittle: Claire Danes
Henry Higgins: Jefferson Mays
Col. Pickering: Boyd Gaines
Alfred Doolittle: Jay O. Sanders
Mrs. Higgins: Helen Carey: Mrs. Pearce: Brenda Wehle
Clara Eynsford Hill: Kerry Bishe
Freddy Eynsford Hill: Kieran Campion
Mrs. Eynsford Hill: Sandra Shipley
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