It used to drive George Bernard Shaw crazy that theatergoers would leave his “Pygmalion” believing the play’s leading characters were destined for the altar. “Disgusting” was Shaw’s word for the notion of a postcurtain wedding for Prof. Henry Higgins, the irascible phoneticist, and Eliza Doolittle, the cockney flower girl whom he teaches to talk proper.
Perhaps the kindest way to think about David Grindley’s misfired revival of “Pygmalion,” which opened last night at the American Airlines Theater, is that it was devised to soothe the restless spirit of the ever-contentious Shaw. For there is not a whisper of mutual attraction between this production’s Eliza and Henry, played by Claire Danes and Jefferson Mays. As for the prospect of marriage: “Not bloody likely,” as Eliza would say. How can you imagine two people sharing a life when they don’t even seem to share a stage?
Much of the advance interest for the Roundabout Theater Company’s production of this 1913 Shaw comedy has centered on the Broadway debut of Ms. Danes, a pretty movie actress who appears regularly in films and in gossip columns. But her 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, the fellow immortalized by Leslie Howard (in the 1938 film version) and Rex Harrison (in Lerner and Loewe’s celebrated “Pygmalion”-based musical, “My Fair Lady”).
Howard, Harrison and their many imitators suggested a squalling, solipsistic infant trapped inside a worldly man’s body. Mr. Mays, who won a Tony Award as the German transvestite in Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife,” dispenses with the grown-up camouflage.
Though some people I’ve talked to have perceived a gay subtext in this “Pygmalion,” the Higgins created by Mr. Mays and Mr. Grindley, who worked together on last season’s excellent “Journey’s End,” is for me less homosexual than presexual. He’s Henry’s infantile id incarnate, given to preschooler fidgeting and impulsively hugging his mother with the ferocity of someone who has only recently been weaned. Poor Eliza isn’t even on his radar.
Since sexual congress (unlike sexual politics) was always a matter of some discomfort for the largely celibate Shaw, I suppose you could argue that a neutered Henry is a man after the playwright’s heart. In a 1916 epilogue to “Pygmalion,” which Mr. Grindley appears to have read closely, Shaw outlined the psychological and sociological reasons Higgins would never marry Eliza or, for that matter, any woman.
But to drag Henry’s inner child to the surface in such undisguised form means you lose the essential joke of a grown man behaving like a baby. More important, Mr. Mays’s Henry seems so hermetically self-involved, almost to the point of autism, that he never connects at all with Eliza. And without some kind of relationship between this Pygmalion and his Galatea, what you have is less a play than a historical tableau with speeches.
Since this is a production from the Roundabout, which specializes in attractively upholstered costume dramas, that tableau is at least an opulent eyeful. Jonathan Fensom’s costumes and sets are unfailingly handsome and precisely detailed.
The decision to present the play as an uninterrupted series of shifting mobile sets means that the acting space is shallower than usual. This may be why Mr. Grindley often groups his cast members across the stage in a straight line, as if they were old-fashioned opera singers about to perform a multipart piece from “Rigoletto.”
In any case the impression is that the scenery is more fluid than the cast is. And the sense of characters simply speechifying — always a danger with Shaw — is underlined.
So is the artificiality of Mr. Mays and Ms. Danes. Both of them come across as self-conscious elocution students, which is hardly appropriate for Higgins. Mr. Mays, with his cut-glass accent and habit of landing on key words with both feet, would be a star pupil. But his diction feels more imitative than instinctive.
Ms. Danes works hard at maintaining audibility, while conveying the accents of the cockney Eliza and the gentrified version of the later scenes. But the effort pre-empts her relaxing into anything like spontaneous emotions. (Tellingly, she’s at her best in the comic scene where a robotic Eliza visits Henry’s mother to test her command of the Queen’s English.) And there’s no fire in her final face-off with Henry.
The supporting cast is better. Jay O. Sanders brings a wakening vitality to Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s dustman-philosopher father. He presents the character’s moral theories with enough variety and clarity to keep the audience with him. But he’s far stronger in his first scene than his second. (And not to nitpick, but why does this cockney pronounce his h’s?)
Brenda Wehle is credibly put-upon and censorious as Higgins’s housekeeper. But the only performers who seem entirely at ease in their characters’ skins are Boyd Gaines (a standout in “Journey’s End”) as Colonel Pickering, Higgins’s colleague and chum, and Helen Carey as Higgins’s mother. They subtly uncover genuine feeling beneath social postures, and interacting with them, Mr. Mays comes close to appearing human.
Mostly, though, the stiffness of this production shines a glaring light on the weaknesses of “Pygmalion,” on its repetitiveness and didacticism. It had me thinking heretically (admittedly not for the first time) that “My Fair Lady,” which used song to amplify and investigate the relationship between Henry and Eliza, is an improvement on the original. Maybe I’m just one of those sentimental fools Shaw held in such contempt.
At the risk of riling the Shavian purists, one test of a good staging of "Pygmalion" is whether it can make you forget the "My Fair Lady" song cues laced through the dialogue and appreciate George Bernard Shaw's droll reflection on class, sexual politics and social conditioning the way audiences must have before Lerner & Loewe's enchanting musical adaptation overtook the original work in popularity. Roundabout's charm-deprived revival of the 1914 play is a starchy, mostly joyless affair that does little to keep those unheard tunes from intruding.
Brit director David Grindley made an assured Broadway debut last season with "Journey's End," coaxing nuanced work from a fine ensemble and atmospheric contributions from set designer Jonathan Fensom and lighting chief Jason Taylor. But while those elements communicated a visceral sense of the claustrophobic anguish of trench warfare, the considerable overlap in approach from the same team makes them a poor fit for Shaw's witty update of the Pygmalion-Galatea myth.
Boxing the stage into a constricted playing space in gloomy half-light made sense when depicting a WWI dugout, but far less in creating well-heeled Professor Higgins' Wimpole Street study or the drawing room in which his urbane mother receives her guests.
The director and designers' refusal to use the full width and height of the stage is particularly frustrating given some of the swanky period decor that's graced recent Roundabout productions in the same theater. And the incongruously naturalistic flourish of having real water rain down in the opening scene outside the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden is hardly effective when half the cast is unable to project above the downpour.
But the design choices are less problematic here than a grating central characterization and a failure of many of the actors to connect with their roles. What's missing most of all is an appropriately light touch from the director. This "Pygmalion" is serviceably mounted and handsomely costumed (also by Fensom) but dull, mislaying much of the humor from all but Shaw's most indestructible scenes.
Stepping from stage experience primarily in dance pieces to her first major New York legit role, Claire Danes is an adequate Eliza Doolittle. But she lacks the self-exposure to make her transformation from caterpillar to luminous butterfly as beguiling as it should be.
Drabbed down by hair, makeup and a dowdy costume, and with much of her focus channeled into taming the Cockney accent, Danes is still too delicate and wispy to be entirely persuasive as the grubby flower girl. She's better when she begins stiffly aping posh refinement and then blossoms, finally, into an independent-minded woman who refuses to be bullied. In the early scenes, especially, Eliza's whininess dampens the pluck that allows the character to stand up to two men way out of her league in class, worldliness and education.
Though he's considerably more at ease with the plummy tones of Henry Higgins, Jefferson Mays makes the phonetician an insufferable, prissy bore. "You certainly are a pretty pair of babies, playing with your live doll," says Mrs. Higgins (Helen Carey) to her son and his partner in the bet to transform Eliza from urchin to duchess, Colonel Pickering (a stodgy Boyd Gaines, lacking his usual warmth). In Henry's case, the accusation has never seemed truer.
Mays plays Henry as a petulant, overgrown child, prone to twitching and sulking, particularly around his disapproving mother. It's a technically accomplished and certainly focused performance, but an unappealing one, making you wish Eliza had better aim when hurling Henry's slippers.
Also missing the mark is Jay O. Sanders in arguably the play's choicest role, as affable opportunist Alfred Doolittle. The boozing dustman's wily philosophizing about marriage, parenthood, poverty, employment and middle-class morality is prime Shaw, but Sanders sinks the humor, turning dialogue into discourse. Given the actor's recent success at finding the sly comedy in such diverse roles as George W. Bush in "Stuff Happens" and Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," his work here is disappointing. And for a character singled out by Higgins for his natural gift of rhetoric, the inability to tap the rhythms in Shaw's speech is crippling.
Aside from Mays, who clearly relishes the role regardless of his questionable take on it, the principals generally show an inconsistent grasp of the rich language, and the director's failure to shape momentum allows scenes to run on and on into inertia.
The most enjoyable performances come from the senior women in the cast. Brenda Wehle never pushes too hard as Henry's housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, yet makes the most of the pragmatic woman's long-suffering exasperation. Carey is an expert comic foil who knows her way around a clipped retort. And Sandra Shipley gets in some amusingly perplexed double takes during Eliza's alarming introduction to polite society. Danes also rises to the occasion in that priceless scene over tea during one of Mrs. Higgins' at-homes. Wouldn't it be loverly if the entire production had that sparkle?