Claire Danes and Jefferson Mays are well-matched in the Roundabout’s excellent revival of George Bernard Shaw’s classic play.

Jefferson Mays and Claire Danes in Pygmalion
(© Joan Marcus)
Jefferson Mays and Claire Danes in Pygmalion
(© Joan Marcus)

Claire Danes is not just in for a penny — she’s in for a pound. In her New York stage debut, she’s playing one of dramatic literature’s stickiest, trickiest roles: Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s
Pygmalion, now being given an excellent revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre. In five scenes of verbal athleticism that many observers believe is comparable to William Shakespeare at his bantering best — a belief shared by Shaw himself — Eliza has to develop from vowel-butchering Covent Garden flower girl to upper-class drawing-room flower.

Well, bully for Danes. In three of the five scenes, the tall, lissome theater debutante — looking especially comely in designer Jonathan Fensom’s fourth-scene ball gown — scores a 10 on a scale of 1-to-10. During her verbal and sometimes physical tangle with insensitive phonetician Henry Higgins (the pitch-perfect Jefferson Mays), she is increasingly majestic — ultimately becoming the embodiment of the independent, intelligent, sophisticated woman Higgins claims he intended to Pygmalionize as his latter-day Galatea.

Indeed, she’s positively melting when she says to Colonel Pickering (a staunch, gentlemanly Boyd Gaines): “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated.” With this one remark, Danes blithely vivifies Shavian insight at its most profound.

Where Danes isn’t quite up to snuff is in the earlier portions of Shaw’s wily and unflinching examination of what truly underpins class distinctions throughout the British Isles. She hasn’t mastered the “detestable boo-hooing” of a vendor escaping from her poor Lisson Grove upbringing to the relative freedom of the teeming London street, nor is her “a-e-i-o-u” the ear-shattering noise Higgins claims it is. Moreover, when Eliza barges in on Higgins to ask about speech lessons, Danes sits with an ill-clothed back as straight as would any young English woman boasting an “honorable” before her name. As a consequence, Danes’ Eliza doesn’t appear to need the services of a phonetician so much as she requires a grammarian to clean up her syntax and send her jubilantly into society.

This lapse is something director David Grindley and dialect coach Majella Hurley might have helped clear up, although they both come through with flying colors in regard to the rest of the cast and through the remainder of the exquisitely wrought play. The ensemble is superlative, although occasionally looking cramped in Fensom’s tight-quartered rooms. In the opening Covent Garden turn, the actors are not only pushed downstage, but lit by Jason Taylor as if Grindley still thinks he’s in the bunker for his Tony Award-winning revival of Journey’s End last season.

Grindley has more effectively harked back to Journey’s End with his players. Besides once again tapping Mays — who doesn’t soften Higgins’ rude edges even a tad — and Gaines, he’s included Kieran Campion as the affable but feckless Freddy Eynsford-Hill.

A worthy newcomer to Grindley’s American stable is burly Jay O. Sanders, whose Alfred P. Doolittle is gruffly amusing as he outlines the benefits of being among the undeserving poor. As for the other women in the cast, Brenda Wehle is a Mrs. Pearce who sternly knows Higgins’ childish ways; Helen Carey is a maternally knowing Mother Higgins; and Sandra Shipley and Kerry Bishe nicely render genteel impoverishment as Freddie’s mother and sisters.

A cautionary word to fans of My Fair Lady, that brilliant musical adaptation of Shaw’s drawing-room comedy: Don’t expect to see either the “Rain in Spain” scene, wherein Higgins drills Eliza on proper pronunciation, or the ballroom scene, wherein Eliza is declared “a princess” by Zoltan Karpathy. Those exuberant sequences are librettist-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner’s trumpery. In his published script of Pygmalion, Shaw only provides a brief, optional version of the speech-improvement scene and a brief, optional interlude preceding the not-shown ballroom scene.

Indeed, Shaw doesn’t mean his play to be about watching a young girl learn how to speak correctly. For him, Pygmalion is about watching a woman achieve equal footing with a man. For us, it’s gloriously about that as well as about watching Danes come into her own as a stage actress.

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Closed: December 16, 2007