Has My Fair Lady turned its source material, Pygmalion, into an outdated curiosity?
Bedlam dares you to compare, deliberately mounting its production of George Bernard Shaw’s century-old play Off-Off Broadway at the same time as the fourth Broadway revival of the 60-year-old Lerner and Lowe musical adaptation is in previews at Lincoln Center.
With its usual verve, the acclaimed downtown company puts on a good show, in the process demonstrating that, if Pygmalion is not as mellifluous as My Fair Lady, it retains the sharp social satire that the musical largely drops. And Bedlam adds an extra layer that is timely and pointed.
The story is more or less the same in both play and musical: In response to a bet, linguist Henry Higgins (Eric Tucker, who also directs) takes on the task of teaching proper speech to uneducated flower girl Eliza Doolittle (a revelatory Vaishnavi Sharma) so that she can pass as a duchess at a garden party.
The musical lingers on plot developments to which the play merely alludes. Higgins’ lessons with Eliza are entirely off-stage in Pygmalion; we only see the results. (There’s no rain in Spain falling mainly on the plain, or anywhere else.)
For its part, the play emphasizes Shaw’s barbed political commentary about class and morality and, albeit to a lesser extent, gender. In her first test, before the genteel acquaintances of Higgins’ mother, Eliza lapses into the vulgar slang of her class. Higgins tries to cover up by convincing the assembled that her off-color language is “the new small talk” – fashionable, and therefore acceptable – and a young upper class woman who was at the gathering vows to start using it at her very next get-together. Eliza’s father Alfred P. Doolittle, is more than just a figure of comic relief. Doolittle calls himself a proud member of the “undeserving poor” but his needs are as great “as any deserving widow’s” and asks Higgins for five pounds for the rights to Eliza: “You’re the last man alive to expect me to let her go for nothing,” he says, meaning it as a compliment.
“I think you ought to know, Doolittle,” says Pickering, Higgins’ fellow linguist and confirmed bachelor, “that Mr. Higgins’s intentions are entirely honorable.”
“Course they are, Governor,” Doolittle replies. “If I thought they wasn’t, I’d ask fifty.”
Unlike the musical, the play resists the suggestion of a romantic ending, and indeed it contains an element of feminism (or at least proto-feminism) that is not clearly evident in the musical created 40 years later. Higgins is arguably less of an irascible sexist in Pygmalion (for contrast, look up the lyrics to “A Hymn to Him” in My Fair Lady) and, in any case, unlike the musical, he clearly pays for his childish attitude towards women in the play. Eliza’s transformation in the play presents problems for her far deeper than any question of unrequited love, reflecting Shaw’s then-radical views: As Mrs. Higgins points out, Eliza has acquired “the manners and habits that disqualify a fine lady from earning her own living without giving her a fine lady’s income.” (It would seem a mixed message that Mrs. Higgins is portrayed by a man in the Bedlam production, if that man, Edmund Lewis, weren’t so accomplished in the role.)
Bedlam distinguished itself as an inventive company from its very first show in 2012, a production of Shaw’s Saint Joan with four actors performing all 24 roles. In Pygmalion, six actors play some 10 roles. The multiple casting is most evident in the scene in the parlor with Higgins’ mother, when the actors put on different hats to play the different guests.
The entire Bedlam cast is, as usual, superb. But two cast members are especially inspired hires — Vaishnavi Sharma as Eliza Doolittle and Rajesh Bose as her father Alfred P. Doolittle. The inclusion of performers of Indian descent adds the issue of race (and colonialism and immigration) to the textual ones of class and gender.
If Shaw is occasionally didactic and verbose, for my money, Pygmalion offers some real pleasures (And speaking of money, tickets cost $45.) Admittedly, one of those pleasures is hearing Higgins say to Eliza “I have grown accustomed to your voice and appearance. I like them rather,” and hearing in your head a familiar tune.
Pygmalion is on the stage at The Sheen Center (18 Bleecker St in the East Village, New York, NY 10012) through April 22, 2018. Tickets and details
Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Eric Tucker. Set design by John McDermott, costume design by Charlotte Palmer-Lane, lighting design by Les Dickert . Featuring Eric Tucker as Henry Higgins, Vaishnavi Sharma as Eliza Doolittle, Rajesh Bose as Mr. Doolittle, Annabel Capper,Nigel Gore, Edmund Lewis. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.