Tuesday, December 18, 2007

By Jove, I Wish They'd Gotten It

Jefferson Mays and Claire Danes in Pygmalion—photo: Joan Marcus

Theatre Review
Pygmalion (2007)

Subtext in reviews can be an odd thing—distracting, disconcerting and oft-times totally dis-posable. I don't think either of those three words will apply to the subtext for this review, because the performance I saw, at the time I saw it, had elements of the subtext woven directly through it, so I ask that you bear with me for a minute.

The ticket for this revival production of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion was what we like to call “a tough get”—First, with its featuring a rather famous film star, Claire Danes, and secondly with a many-times-multiplied ticket demand due to the stagehands strike that affected the vast bulk of the New York shows. (The American Airlines Theater had their own separate contract along with a few other productions) Any show still running was damn-near selling catwalk seats in sopping up the increased demand, and this was one of them. A verrrry tough get.

What complicated matters further was an unforseen difficulty in getting a reviewer ticket. That difficulty was brought on by the city's wingnut alternative weekly deciding to send a reporter to literally “stalk” Danes in some sort of arch attempt to be hip in reporting on the ease of urban stalking of the famous. The article—now thankfully pulled from the web, but still available if you can find a hard copy lying around somewhere in a gutter, detailed how to stalk Ms. Danes, featured a creepy pic of her snapped surreptitiously, and even told readers where she lived. Her agent and agency rightfully wigged out about the chuckling privacy violation, taking the execrable rag to task, but it poisoned the well for folks looking to get press tickets...folks like me, who justifiably had to go through some serious hoops to get one. I did, and I saw the play last week, finding myself struck by the opening scene...for it's unintended irony.

Danes' Eliza Doolittle is effectively “stalked” about in the rain, her every word written down by Jefferson Mays' Henry Higgins. Eliza of course reacts badly to his intrusiveness. That strange art/life feedback loop was coursing right before the audience's eyes. I don't think I was alone in noting it from the couple of folks I saw whispering pointedly to their companions as the uncomfortable moment played out.

And unfortunately, I wasn't alone in my somewhat disappointed opinion of the play itself, as evidenced by the post-production discussions outside. Pygmalion itself is a daunting production for it's leads, leaning so heavily on swift banter and dialect work—not to mention near-iconic portrayals that perhaps unfairly lock people into static ideas of how Higgins and Eliza are to be played. You can either thank Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn for that, or quietly curse them, but like it or not, they (along with the Julie Andrews Broadway portrayal of Eliza) sit as the gold standard.

But that would be letting this production off too easily, weighing it against “My Fair Lady” and all that. A production stands on its own with the bracing support of its actors, and sadly...I found them both a bit wanting. Mays' Higgins was just a bit too much the bully here, storming about more like a Parris Island drill instructor than the stuffy, impatient pedant the character calls for. Perhaps Mays opted to make a choice here to stand out from previous incarnations, but it was a poor choice—if it was made by him, or encouraged by the director. He seems to relish his overbearing physical dominance in the scenes. He's confident and arrogant as the role requires, but he seemed to O.D. on those themes in performance. His job is to teach Eliza lessons, not to “teach Eliza a lesson” per sé. And his overbearing gruffness seems designed to teach the actress Danes a lesson too. “This is Broadway my dear. No blue screen or re-takes.”

I'm not calling Mays a bad guy, or an un-generous performer, but all of his pushing didn't seem to elicit much of a real performance pushback from the lovely Ms. Danes—and that's unfortunate—for the texture of the production and for her. As I said, she is lovely to look at onstage, like a beautifully fashioned glass oil lamp—but without that glowing, dancing fire within that one longed to see.

Doolittle is one of theater's most difficult roles, calling for equal parts brashness, vulnerability, caginess. and one of the more drastic character transformations for an actor to pull off on a theatrical stage. Danes manages to do these things, but alas—with more than a little bit of “color-by-numbers” complete-ism rather than the bold, confident strokes of an inspired painter. It's a role that can bring out the shortcomings in even a highly-skilled broadway actress, so perhaps I'm being a bit hard on Ms. Danes here...but I couldn't help but wonder where the warm, naturalistic actress was that I saw and enjoyed so much in “My So-Called Life” and “Igby Goes Down”. And I felt like a piker in that instant—I realized exactly where that actress was. She was on the silver screen and in my TV's cathode ray tube, with all the unsure moments and occasional stiffnesses whittled away and left in edit-room bins and on hard drives full of unused digital outtakes.

Theater's an amazingly difficult thing. You stand in the wings awaiting the curtain's rise. You feel every fold of your costume catching your skin like a dull knife's edge. A large sponge has seemingly wedged itself in the canal between your throat and sinuses—it's hard to breathe, tough to swallow, and nearly impossible to “just talk”. There is the tingling paralysis that crawls 'round from the base of your spine and locks your hips to where you can barely walk. A stage actor can feel all of this in those pre-curtain seconds—and then? The whirr of the pulleys, the lights blaze and it's your cue. Once you break the boundary from wing to set, you either become a sponge, soaking it all in, the crowd, the heat of the lights, the creak of every floorboard under your feet—and fill up from all that sensory overload, or you act as a filter, catching what you need—a timing cue from the audience based on applause or laughter, or those magical moments when your fellow actors tee your lines up for you perfectly. The more seasoned stage actor is more often able to channel the filter rather than the sponge, and that is where Danes' performance's troubles lay, I believe. This is her first Broadway role—again, one of the most difficult to pull off, and making this role your virgin trod 'cross a major stage is akin to a brilliant med student's first residency case being a quadruple heart bypass.

You're probably going to be a bit mechanical with it, and that's what Danes was, unfortunately. But I'm not sure that was entirely her fault.

Her co-star Mays (Higgins) was at times riveting, but he's a far more seasoned theater performer than Danes is, and if you saw him in the show he won a Tony for—2004's I Am My Own Wife, you'd know that he's more than capable of dominating a stage. In that play—a one man show—he played at least thirty different characters, so his chops are impeccable. Plus, he's worked with the director Grindley before, in this year's production of “Journey's End”, so he's got an extra helping of familiarity on his plate. Danes seemed almost daunted by the task before her, and who wouldn't be? To the casual theatergoer, the deck was already stacked in a pruriently entertaining way. As far as they were concerned, the real show was seeing a “stunt-casted” Hollywood star trod the boards opposite one of Broadway's strongest, newest, and most lionized star performers.

Add in Mays' probable over-compensation in subconsciously taking up the slack for his somewhat daunted co-star, and you get what I saw on West 42nd Street last week—which was an uneven staging, lit by the occasional spark, like Jay Sanders' Alfred Doolittle (Eliza's father). The part is a well-known repository of scene-theft and Sanders fairly revels in it, exulting in his proud poverty and ne'er do well-ness. He seems the most at home in Shaw's class-rolied world—he and Helen Carey, who plays Higgins' mother with carbonated pep. When you get two supporting players stealing the show from a Tony-winner and an Emmy-nominated Hollywood star, you have a problematic production—that “uneven staging” I mentioned earlier.

I really wish this play had been better. I really do. And my guess is that these performers—Mays and Danes—will acquit themselves better in less freighted productions than this one. In fact, I'm sure of it—It's just too bad that this one wasn't it.

Having channeled a bit of my inner “Addison DeWitt”, this has been LowerManhattnite, from the GNB Culture Desk. Meet you back at the proscenium arch some time soon.