Shaw's back in town — finally! The Old Globe stages Pygmalion

In Pygmalion, Henry and Eliza have a bond, ambiguous as all get-out, but a bond nonetheless.
  • In Pygmalion, Henry and Eliza have a bond, ambiguous as all get-out, but a bond nonetheless.

What a treat! George Bernard Shaw’s back at the Old Globe — finally! — with first-class direction, performances, and design work. Even a balky turntable on opening night couldn’t tarnish the luster.

For the past 15 years or so, local theater has treated Shaw’s works like ancient statues draped with canvas. In an age when communication verges ever closer to Morse Code — LOL, WTF — Shaw’s plays have too many words, are too cerebral — or so the “thinking” has gone. Well, guess what: director Nicholas Martin has given Shaw’s comic masterpiece vivid, funny, thought-provoking life.

Anyone seeing Pygmalion for the first time will experience déjà vu. Coar-blimey! Isn’t Henry Higgins the ’enery ’iggins of My Fair Lady? Lerner and Loewe based their musical so closely on the original, you can even hear song cues, as when Higgins complains that the moment he makes friends with a woman, “she becomes jealous, exacting, suspicious” and expects him to sing “but let a woman in your life...” Audiences will be led astray, however, if they think the play, and the ending, will conform to the musical.

The title recalls the mythical sculptor who carved a statue of a woman and fell in love with it. The Greek goddess Aphrodite brought her to life. Pygmalion has a similar thrust. On a dare, Henry Higgins plucks Eliza Doolittle from a Covent Garden gutter and changes her “kerbstone English” to the sonorous cadences of an up-market duchess. He walks all over her (“I walk over everybody!”), remains oblivious to her feelings, and vows to “throw her back in the gutter.”

But Pygmalion just carved the statue. In one of the Globe’s most touching scenes, the now stately Eliza thanks Colonel Pickering for awakening her self-respect. She was raised just like Higgins, she says, “unable to control myself, and using bad language on the slightest provocation.” She would never have known otherwise if Pickering, like Aphrodite, had not set her free.

And free to see through Higgins (“All the time I only had to lift up my finger to be as good as you”). So audiences expect a romance to bloom between them. But not Shaw. Pygmalion, he writes in a “sequel,” is no love story. “Eliza has no use for the foolish romantic tradition that all women love to be mastered.” Anyone hoping for even the suggestion of marriage has a “lazy dependence on the...ragshop in which Romance keeps its stock of happy endings to misfit all stories.”

The real Pygmalion, in effect, is Shaw. And we are his block of marble. He wants to pare away our yen for sappy conclusions and pay sober attention to social class: how “in an age of upstarts” people lose their freedom; how external factors determine social standing. And how Eliza and her father have become trapped: she has the sophistication but not the money; he, the money, but not the sophistication.

Pygmalion does give a comic critique of the mannered. Trouble is, to wean us from a happy ending, Shaw first had to set one up. Henry and Eliza have a bond, ambiguous as all get-out, but a bond nonetheless.

Critics aren’t supposed to talk about endings, so I’ll just say that the director has added a visual to the original that nicely complicates matters. The Old Globe recently named Nicholas Martin as an “associate artist” — with good reason.

Henry Higgins is supposed to be 20 years older than Eliza. Although his British accent sometimes slips, Robert Sean Leonard makes him a spoiled-brat genius with romper-room energy. People expecting a rigid Rex Harrison may be off-put. But Leonard’s irritating, engaging, physically active Higgins serves the play. Adulthood still eludes this Henry. As long as it does, he won’t be Eliza’s equal.

As the “artificial duchess,” Charlotte Parry blooms like one of Eliza’s flowers — and the text gives her far less room than the musical: no “Rain in Spain”; no Embassy Ball; no hugging scene with Freddy. There are at least five different Elizas, one for each act, and Parry connects them all with a splendid performance.

The ensemble has “Craig’s Children” at its core: expert, classically trained actors Craig Noel cast decades ago, whenever he could. Paxton Whitehead (ever-precise as Pickering); Don Sparks (a comic hoot as Mr. Doolittle, snagged by “middle-class morality”); Kandis Chappell (Higgins’s imperial mother to whom “what fools these males be”); Deborah Taylor (Mrs. Pearce, the housekeeper, and Higgins’s live-in mother figure). The quartet evokes two responses: What a grand reunion! And, Where have they been?

Donning the elegant costumes of Robert Morgan (another Noel favorite), Maggie Carney, Danielle O’Farrell, and Robbie Simpson provide valuable support as the eccentric Eynsford Hills. Simpson’s Freddy wears such a perpetual smile, you expect him to belt “On the Street Where You Live” at any moment. Freddy’s naiveté also cuts another way: he’s no match for Eliza. ■

Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw
Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park
Directed by Nicholas Martin; cast: Charlotte Parry, Robert Sean Leonard, Paxton Whitehead, Kandis Chappell, Don Sparks, Deborah Taylor, Robbie Simpson, Maggie Carney, Danielle O’Farrell, Jeremy Fisher, Adam Gerber, Allison Layman, Erin Elizabeth Adams; scenic design, Alexander Dodge; costumes, Robert Morgan; lighting, Philip S. Rosenberg; sound, Drew Levy; original music, Mark Bennett
Playing through February 17; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623

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