Presented by Jean Cocteau Repertory at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre, 330 Bowery, NYC, Dec. 12-March 27 in repertory.
George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" is about the complicated struggle between Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, and Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl he turns into a lady. For this modest, faithful, and proficient revival, directed by Rose Burnett Bonczek, Jean Cocteau Repertory has found two worthy combatants, sharply contrasted yet equally matched. Jay Nickerson, who plays Higgins, is tall, broad-shouldered, and craggy-featured, and he knows how to dominate a room. Sprawled in a chair, his long, long legs stretched out in front of him, he is the very picture of arrogant insensitivity. Yet for all his imposing power, not to mention his palpable intelligence, this Higgins is clearly a great big baby. He is not always likeable, but he is never uninteresting. Kate Holland's Eliza is a coltish, spirited flower peddler who turns into an elegant but still spirited lady. Her delicate beauty makes her an instant underdog in the battles with her looming, overbearing opponent—which makes her victories all the more satisfying.
Angus Hepburn is irresistible in the role of Eliza's reprobate father, whose trajectory from jaunty garbage man to despondent gentleman is a parody of his daughter's. Tim Morton is charmingly sweet-natured as Higgins' friend Colonel Pickering. Accents—so important in this play about (among other things) phonetics—are neither labored nor neglected. Michael Carnahan's scenery, David Kniep's lighting, and Viviane Galloway's costumes accommodate the play successfully to the small stage of the Cocteau.
"Pygmalion" has dated a bit since 1912, and it was always one of Shaw's lighter plays despite dealing with class relations, gender relations, and tutorial relations—all matters of permanent importance. In this production, it emerges as an entertaining, intelligent comedy of manners, with not much immediate relevance to the way we live now. Perhaps another revival might find something in it more explosive, more urgent. Or perhaps not. Meanwhile, I am happy to enjoy what the Cocteau has on offer.