Now, perhaps predictably, Shaw’s superb play, if the Jean Cocteau Repertory’s current revival is any indication, is beginning to show signs of being able to shake off at least some of the inhibitions imposed on it by the sterling work done by Moss Hart, Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner in the process of turning it into a smash Broadway musical.
The Jean Cocteau Rep, which has been producing plays in the tiny Bouwerie Lane Theatre for almost 31 years, has often demonstrated what fine work can be accomplished on the most modest of budgets, and “Pygmalion,” which runs in repertory with Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” through March 27, is no exception. (Friedrich von Schiller’s “Intrigue and Love” joins the lineup on Feb. 11).
After production of “My Fair Lady,” it comes as something of a shock to be reminded just how much first-rate Shaw is contained in “Pygmalion,” and how much excellent material had to be elbowed out of the way to make room for the great Lerner and Loewe score.
Shaw’s play had its origins in Greek mythology, a tale recounted in, among other sources, Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” in which the sculptor, Pygmalion, carves the figure of a woman out of ivory, and, after naming her Galatea, proceeds to fall in love with his creation. Distraught, he prays to Venus to breathe life into the statue, a plea to which the goddess accedes.
It is probably true that Shaw went to work on his London-based version of the Pygmalion legend because one of the leading actresses of the day, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, had told him that she wished to portray a Cockney character on stage.
The actress balked at some of the “vulgar” language she found in Shaw’s play, including the sounds the character of the Covent Garden flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, habitually made, and the use of the word “bloody,” which to this day is capable of sending a distinct chill up many a British spine.
“Pygmalion” had its London premiere at His Majesty’s Theatre on April 11, 1914, giving Mrs. Campbell the greatest role of her career, a part she played on Broadway in October of that year.
The start of World War I, in the summer of 1914, caused the London production to suspend performances, despite the fact that the show was selling out regularly.
During the rehearsal period of “Pygmalion,” a close relationship grew between the playwright and his star, causing the only known rough patch in the Dublin-born playwright’s reportedly sexless marriage to Charlotte Payne Townshend, the Irish heiress he had met at Fabian Socialist meetings and whom he had married in 1898 at age 42.
“Pygmalion” is, on its gleaming surface, one of the most dazzling examples of the playwriting genre that might be termed “battle-of-the-sexes comedies,” with Eliza and Professor Henry Higgins at each other’s throats from the first scene onward.
It is, of course, vastly more than that, and one of the areas in which the Jean Cocteau Rep staging gleams is in a vastly more serious aspect, reflecting Shaw’s belief that the fundamentally rigid British class system might one day come close to crippling English society.
Rose Burnett Bonczek, director of the Cocteau’s “Pygmalion,” has been fortunate in virtually every respect, beginning with her casting of the play’s keystone role: the spoiled, self-indulgent, charming Higgins.
In the lanky laconic-seeming Jay Nickerson, the Cocteau’s revival has an ideal Higgins. Tall, graceful and very slightly sleepy in demeanor, the actor commands almost every scene in which he appears, leaving space for the brief star turns Shaw has created for the character’s wry, witty mother and for Alfred Doolittle, the rational philosopher and “dustman,” who happens to be Eliza’s father.
Eliza, Shaw’s version of Galatea, is, of course, as vital to any “Pygmalion” production as Higgins, and, in Kate Holland, the new staging has a charming and effective heroine, albeit a slightly slow-starting one.
Modest of stature, Holland requires something more than the usual amount of time to assert herself and, in a way, to declare Eliza’s importance to the proceedings. In the Covent Garden scene that opens the play, she could easily be mistaken for one of the passers-by fleeing the rain and the cold.
Later, however, her performance comes into focus, and, in Shaw’s final scenes, she matches the sly, crafty Nickerson blow for blow and point for point.
The ever-relaxed Higgins, as usual, dominates “Pygmalion,” leaning on the furniture and the scenery, seeming always at his ease. A short, tubby Higgins, or even a nervous or driven one, would, of course, be unthinkable.
Angus Hepburn’s doughty Doolittle is steadfast and clear-spoken, gracefully sidestepping the role’s built-in pitfall. Namely, that the dustman is only too willing to sell his daughter into something resembling sexual slavery, if the price is right, of course.
As the professor’s imperious mother, Marlene May has been forced to labor under an unfortunate wig, but nevertheless manages to infuse her scenes with her “son” with a certain clarity and even a measure of intellectual integrity.
As Mrs. Pearce, the chief-of-staff of Henry Higgins’s household, Lynn Marie Macy seems not to know her place, emerging as more of a steely prison matron than an urban London chatelaine of the Edwardian era.
As Colonel Pickering, Higgins’s chum and straight man, Tim Morton is sporadically effective, although perhaps just a touch too American, in terms of delivering the Shavian lines.
As the snobby Hill family members, Sara Jeanne Asselin, Ramona Floyd and Danaher Dempsey, fill their assigned roles adequately, if not spectacularly.
Michael Carnahan’s scenic design is one of the production’s real joys, converting from the professor’s study to his mother’s drawing room swiftly and easily, with the unobtrusive help of the majority of the cast.
The Jean Cocteau Repertory’s “Pygmalion” finds the admirable little company at or near the top of its form, representing a genuinely appealing addition to the menu of items available on New York stages.