Robert Sean Leonard as Henry Higgins and Charlotte Parry as Eliza Doolittle… (Henry DiRocco )
SAN DIEGO — For some theatergoers, George Bernard Shaw's classic 1913 play "Pygmalion" is "My Fair Lady" without the songs and traditional romantic ending. But returning to the source of Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner's beloved musical reminds us that Shaw's marvelous comedy contains its own music — an ebullient symphony of wit and wisdom too honest to pander to convention and too amusing for anyone to object.
Nicholas Martin's charmingly acted revival at the Old Globe, starring Robert Sean Leonard as Professor Henry Higgins and Charlotte Parry as Eliza Doolittle, honors the many hues of Shaw's work.
Shifting from daring social critique to old-fashioned romance to keen character study, the play is acutely mindful of the way life is inextricably political. For Shaw this had less to do with party affiliation than with the recognition that human relations are ultimately about power and therefore about class and gender. His ability to convey this with a lightness of touch, to instruct without being ponderous, lifted him into the circle of playwriting immortals.
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Martin respects both the frivolity and seriousness of Shaw's reworking of the old Pygmalion myth, best known from Ovid's "Metamorphoses," about the sculptor who falls in love with the female figure he's carved out of ivory. Shaw's update, which also contains echoes of the Cinderella tale, gives us the dream as well as the morning misgivings — fantasy and shrewd reality blended to enhance a thinking person's pleasure.
The play hinges on a wager: Higgins, a phonetics expert, makes a bet with a distinguished colleague, Colonel Pickering (a pitch-perfect Paxton Whitehead), that he can transform Eliza, a cockney flower girl, into a duchess in three months. The experiment is a brilliant success, but can a person feel grateful for being treated like a lab rat even if her etiquette and enunciation are now as impeccable as her newly bought clothes? More important, can someone be ripped from her social context without revealing the ruse of society's hierarchies?
"Pygmalion" starts as a playful venture but quickly develops into an X-ray of a stratified nation. Yes, it remains a love story, but one that understands just how profoundly the romantic is political.
Leonard is such an appealing stage actor, one who naturally draws audiences whisperingly close to him, that it wasn't clear if he'd have the necessary sternness to play Higgins, whose disregard for niceties borders on the pathological.
But Leonard captures the emotional cluelessness of a linguistic researcher who cares more for pronunciation than people. At the same time, pacing around his handsome study (expertly designed by Alexander Dodge), Leonard's Higgins remains sympathetic enough in his cute cardigan and distracted manner for us to understand Eliza's regard for him.
In following the journey Shaw has prepared for Eliza, Parry starts as a shrieking cartoon and ends as a complex woman whose growing knowledge of the world only intensifies her desire for independence. The humor of Parry's early scenes dissipates as Eliza's manner becomes more respectable, but the emotion deepens as the character feels the disappointment of not being seen by the man who remade her.
Martin's supporting cast is superb. Kandis Chappell, destined to offer a definitive Mrs. Higgins, supplies one here. It's no surprise that her son is still under the spell of this elegant, freethinking woman who zeroes in on souls the way Higgins zeroes in on accents.
Whitehead's Colonel Pickering is the consummate gentleman scholar. Indeed the portrait is so well pulled off that you hate to think Eliza might not be going back to Wimpole Street to live with Higgins and the Colonel in a setup of bachelor bliss that is perhaps the most contrived aspect of Shaw's oddly sexless world.
As Mr. Doolittle, Eliza's ne'er-do-well father, Don Sparks manages to steal every scene he's in while instantly conceding the stage once his character's inverted moralizing is through. Deborah Taylor's Mrs. Pearce, Higgins' indispensable housekeeper, brandishes a knowledge of human nature that gives her an authority well beyond her station.
Robbie Simpson's Freddy, the young man from the modest middle class who falls head over heels for Eliza, has a goofy smile and an eager-to-please manner that could be reined in a jot. He seems more like Higgins' disdainful impression of the character than the fellow who will eventually win Eliza's hand.
To understand this twist, you'll have to see the production for yourself. Martin, following a note Shaw appended to the play, takes liberties with the text. The ending doesn't revert to the traditional formula of romantic comedy, but it doesn't leave things quite as ambiguous as the original. Never mind: Martin's rapid-fire "Pygmalion" is a pleasure from start to finish.