“My plays must be acted, and acted hard,” Shaw once wrote to his favorite director, Granville Barker. He didn’t mean that they should be overacted, but that the actors needed an intensity which could burn through the seemingly smooth surface of his elegantly articulated words. Shaw had seen, and relished, all the great 19th-century actors, in every category, and knew exactly what he could extract from each for his purposes. He built his plays to withstand the pressures that were applied to scripts as a normal procedure, in an era when star actors were their own producers and often ran their own theaters.
Pygmalion was written for two such strong-minded stars, Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Where Shaw’s beloved Ellen Terry had played wronged women, either weepy or spunky, Stella Campbell played rule-breaking “wicked” women in envelope-pushing new scripts. Tree, built to the heroic leading-man mold, liked casting himself as grotesques: Malvolio, Falstaff, Svengali. (Henry Sweet, on whom Shaw modeled Higgins, was a notorious London eccentric.) Shaw expected them to bring their own imaginative strokes to the roles.
Stark, low-toned, and a shade grudging, David Grindley’s new Roundabout production of Pygmalion tries to read Shaw’s sardonic parable of phonetics and class barriers as Shaw himself read it: Higgins and Eliza collide, and intrigue each other, but do not get together. Shaw knew he was standing the teacher-and-pupil Cinderella myth on its head. In his lifetime he rejected all offers to turn Pygmalion into a musical; he cast a disgruntled eye on the trick by which Leslie Howard and Anthony Asquith gave the film a romantic ending, just as he had on the sentimental business (of tossing a flower to Eliza) with which Tree brought down the final curtain. Grindley doesn’t follow Shaw all the way: He trims lines at the end to soften Eliza’s triumphal exit, and he leaves Higgins forlorn rather than laughing, but he makes it very clear that no coupling is in store for them.
Maybe too clear. The Cinderella myth that Shaw turned upside down was his lure for the public , the sugar coating that would induce them to swallow his pill of knowledge. (“How clever of the public,” said the Viennese wit Egon Friedell, “to lick off the sugar and leave the pill untasted.”) Without the spark of attraction between Higgins and Eliza, Pygmalion has intellectual interest, even the interest of dramatic suspense: We watch to see what Eliza will do, how she will change as she learns and gathers confidence, how Higgins will counter her rebellion. But we don’t care as much as we would if we thought they had some chance at each other. As expected, much of the acting in Grindley’s production is first-rate. Boyd Gaines’s Pickering, a dashing older gent, painfully conscious of his age when near Eliza, is superb.
Jefferson Mays catches vast amounts of Higgins: his childish greed for knowledge, his equally childish love of sounding off. But the inner need that makes Higgins take on the challenge of Eliza is absent; this Higgins seems wholly cerebral. Which may be because Claire Danes’s Eliza, beautiful and proficient, seems far too well trained to arouse any but pedagogical interest. Danes handles herself capably onstage, as well in the early low-life scenes as in the second half’s two big confrontations with Higgins. Her presence is right, her line readings are right, her accent is generally right. But the rightness is that of the obedient student; she has not yet made the role belong to her. Once, early in the nighttime scene with Higgins, she catches fire for a few moments, and we see how this play could jump to life if the blaze were sustained, but her fire fades as quickly as it started.
Fortunately, Shaw built his plays so that the fire always throbs inside their architecture, waiting to be released. Just to see and hear Pygmalion played out in its original form, to skip the swirl and melody of My Fair Lady in favor of the bigger vision that searches up and down the social ladder to extract wit as well as meaning from the comedy of life—this is a privilege we don’t get every day. Our perpetually abdicating theaters have almost made us forget it exists. Grindley’s production takes Shaw on his own terms, and rarely gets in Shaw’s way. The audience’s delight at the result is understandable—all the more so when you weigh the Shavian size and scope against something like A Feminine Ending, at Playwrights Horizons, which also deals with a young woman facing career challenges.
Sarah Treem’s play is youthful work, tiny, sweet-natured, seriously meant, and full of promise. It wears its influences (Wasserstein, Durang) proudly on its sleeve; it fixates on the love-disappointments (boyfriends, parents) that always fascinate the young, but does so with an occasional sharp glance that tells you the writer is noticing the outside world, too. Blair Brown has staged it tidily, with a sun-ny, skillful performance by Gillian Jacobs in the lead. But next to a work like Pygmalion, its smallness—the smallness that has become our theatrical daily bread—is pitiable.