By George Bernard Shaw
Produced by Quotidian Theatre Company
Directed by Stephanie Mumford
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
In another two weeks – maybe less – Quotidian Theatre, with a little bit of bloomin’ luck, might very well have a smokin’ production of Pygmalion. As for now, the show is soggy and undercooked – fitfully amusing, episodically interesting, occasionally well performed, but not a full, satisfying play.
The Shavian story of the phonetics expert and the howling cockney flowergirl he transformed is better known to us in the form of the Lerner and Loewe musical, My Fair Lady.
But the original, nonmusical version has pleasures of its own, not the least of which is Shaw’s distinctively savage sendup of England’s much-loved class system. The difference between the upper class and the lower class, Shaw not only asserts but demonstrates, is nothing more than a way of pronouncing vowels, coupled with a facility for discussing the weather. It is as easy for a street urchin to learn to sound like a Duchess, Professor Henry Higgins (John Allnut) argues, as it is – well, for a Duchess.
To prove the point, Higgins and his fellow language specialist, Col. Pickering (John Decker), take on the challenge offered by Eliza Doolittle (Maura Stadem), who has overheard Higgins’ boast and now wants to be made over into a proper English gentlewoman so she can improve her job prospects. As the world knows, the bloodless Higgins succeeds. But he has no more regard for Eliza than a behavioral psychologist has for the pigeons he teaches to press keys for food, and his thoughtless contempt for her gives Eliza more pain than her own triumph gives her pleasure. Moreover, she has discovered that as a gentlewoman her options are even more limited than they were as a cockney toughie. In her old life, she could at least sell flowers on the street, but as a woman of refinement, she can perform no useful labor whatsoever.
Stadem, an actor with a remarkable facility for dialect – she played a bewildered young Frenchwoman in ACT’s The Autumn Garden last year and a drawling deep south teenager in Quotidian’s Mill Town Girls earlier this year – absolutely nails not only the cockney and upper-class accents but the exaggerated, over-precise expression of a subjugated person learning the conqueror’s tongue. A scene in which Eliza, newly versed in the diction of the upper class but blissfully unaware of the conventions, explains to Higgins’ mother (Jane Squier Bruns) in beautifully rendered English the advantages enjoyed by women who keep their husbands drunk (it assures docility) is almost painfully hilarious. (Clare Flood is the dialect coach).
Regrettably, Stadem’s timing, particularly in the first Act where she is obliged to fly into great swoops of rage at Higgins’ callous and outrageous comments, is incrementally off. Stadem’s Eliza sits passively as Higgins delivers his extensive condescending remarks. (Shaw being Shaw, all of Higgins’ remarks are extensive). Only when he is done, and Eliza speaks, does she demonstrate the anger which is her defining characteristic. The result is that the emotion seems inauthentic, and sometimes not fully motivated.
Perhaps part of the problem is Allnut’s, who in the production I saw struggled mightily with his lines. To be fair, Higgins is a very difficult role. Shaw force-marches the actor who takes it on through passages of immense length, full of bon mots and snide remarks, and they must all be delivered with the sharpness and starch of a freshly-cut Victorian shirt. That Allnut has not fully mastered the role robs Higgins of the oceanic confidence that is his defining characteristic. Allnut’s Higgins is a curiously vulnerable fellow, which has merits of its own, but he is not the infuriating character who can end the play waiting for his Stilton ham and cheese sandwich, and make us believe it.
The supporting cast is uniformly strong, particularly actor/playwright Steve LaRocque as Eliza’s father. Alfred is a much livelier character in the play than he is in the musical, and LaRocque squeezes out every ounce of ironic cynicism Shaw put into the character. In the play, the elder Doolittle is an epic fraud of almost Socratic proportions; the founder of an elaborate philosophy the goal of which is to land him a five-pound note. Were he alive, only W.C. Fields could play him properly; in Fields’ absence, LaRocque is a more than adequate substitute. Decker as Pickering and Bruns as the Professor’s mum who is periodically obliged to introduce the two scientists to common sense, are also excellent, and Michael Avolio’s brief turn as the love-struck Freddie is fine.
Quotidian plays Pygmalion on the tiny stage of the Bethesda Writer’s Center auditorium, and Jack Sbarbori’s set, beautiful and authentic as it is, proved somewhat difficult for the actors to maneuver through. Director Stephanie Mumford has hit on the excellent idea of transcribing Eliza’s elocution lessons – which came from the musical, rather than Shaw’s play – on a scratchy recording played between scenes; it is there that we learn where the rain in Spain mainly falls. (Sbarbori’s and Nick Sampson’s sound work is superb). I found some of Mumford’s choices confusing – I couldn’t imagine why she had the actors shield themselves from the audience with their umbrellas during the opening scene’s rainstorm, for instance – but she shows a real surgeon’s skill with the text, which comes in at an un-Shavian and quite manageable 2:25. Mumford and Amy Reynolds also show a nice hand with the costumes.
A review late in a show’s run is of no use to anyone, but one of the disadvantages of reviewing a show early is that you see it at its worst. Quotidian offers its productions at such a modest price that it might be worth the risk to see the show after the company has had a chance to shake out some of the butterflies.
(Running time: 2:25 including 1 intermission.) Pygmalion continues Fridays through Sundays until August 5 at the Bethesda Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh Street in downtown Bethesda. Fridays and Saturdays are at 8; Sundays are at 2. There will be an additional Saturday matinee at 2 on August 4. General admission is $20; seniors and students are $15. For reservations, call 301.816.1023 or email [email protected].net.