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THEATER REVIEW

'Pygmalion': SCR Covers Old Ground

September 09, 1997|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

To open the new season on its mainstage, South Coast Repertory chose an Old Reliable, "Pygmalion," the Cinderella story that George Bernard Shaw spiked with ideas about class, dignity and sexual equality.

This "Pygmalion" has been outfitted with a visually arresting production--down to the straps on the women's fashionable shoes--but it is guided by a sensibility that seems content with window dressing, content to let the familiar be familiar.

Indeed, the irascible phonetics scholar Henry Higgins and his star pupil, flower girl Eliza Doolittle, are so familiar they are like icons, whether because of the play itself or because of the elegant musical it inspired, "My Fair Lady."

This fact would seem to dictate that a director build some unexpected door on the play so that the audience can enter anew. The closest director William Ludel comes to an angle is in giving us a Henry (Nicholas Hormann) and Eliza (Nike Doukas) who appear to be fairly close in age. But because no spark ever flies between them, any opportunity in the casting lies dormant.

Ludel is too broad with the comedy, particularly the antics of Higgins and the ever-civil Col. Pickering, his partner in transforming Eliza from a flower girl into a young woman so poised she can pass for royal. As Pickering, David Byrd has all the right equipment--a wonderful, deeply lined face and aquiline nose and a mellifluous bass voice.

But he's given silly bits of stage business that strain for laughs. While Higgins is arguing with his stern housekeeper (the redoubtable Martha McFarland), Byrd cowers extravagantly under the tray, like a sidekick in a sitcom. When Eliza slips into Cockney dialect while being shown off to high society, Byrd cringes and sobs into Higgins' sleeve, as if he were invisible to the assembled company. In these and other scenes, Ludel treats the play as if it were in need of a laugh track.

Hormann, who was solid in Ludel's "Blithe Spirit" at SCR in 1995, is a charmless Higgins who does not possess the moral authority to intimidate Eliza or anybody else. When he comes home from a night out and flings his cape and hat on the floor, center stage, he is more a spoiled brat than a man too concerned with the life of the mind to worry about neatness. Further, he never seems truly intrigued with Eliza; a wan smile is his only token of tribute to her, and often he doesn't seem interested at all. Their third act scene alone together has never seemed so long.

As Eliza, Doukas fares much better. She has lovely, fierce coloring to match a forceful personality. Captivating the upper class with "the new slang"--her own dialect combined with what Higgins has taught her--she never doubts that her story about an aunt's suspicious death will fascinate, and it does. The enigma of what is exactly between this earthy, quasi-independent woman and her mentor remains thoroughly cloudy, even cloudier than Shaw meant it to.

In supporting roles, the women also fare better than the men. SCR regular Richard Doyle is a hammy, eye-popping Alfred Doolittle, the "common dustman" who's an untutored sage, a man Higgins calls "the most original moralist at present in England." But Anne Gee Byrd, as Higgins' mother, offers the salty intelligence oddly lacking in her son.

Mrs. Higgins' apartment, on the Chelsea embankment overlooking the Albert Bridge, has a touch of magic missing in Henry's rust-colored study. Designed by Karen TenEyck, whose set for last season's "Triumph of Love" was a spectacular formal French garden, this set features the steel gray cables of the bridge lurching up toward a light periwinkle sky, the dominant visual motif of Mrs. Higgins' apartment, showing her to be a thoroughly modern woman.

This bridge becomes an apt guardian for the spirit of the play, representing the transition from an inarticulate flower girl to outspoken woman, from the Edwardian to the modern. Its poetry is missing from most of the rest of this production.

* "Pygmalion," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 5. $28-$43. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Laura Hinsberger: Miss Eynsford Hill

Lynn Milgrim: Mrs. Eynsford Hill

David Whalen: Freddy Eynsford Hill

Nike Doukas: Eliza Doolittle

David Byrd: Col. Pickering

Nicholas Hormann: Henry Higgins

Martha McFarland: Mrs. Pearce

Richard Doyle: Alfred Doolittle

Anne Gee Byrd: Mrs. Higgins

With: Don Took, Art Koustik, Hilary Russell, Jason Esquerra, Daniel Gilvary, Jenny McGlinchey, Ann Raphael-Walker, Tim Redmond

A South Coast Repertory production. By George Bernard Shaw. Directed by William Ludel. Sets Karen TenEyck. Costumes Walker Hicklin. Lights Tom Ruzika. Original music and sound Michael Roth. Production manager Michael Mora.

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