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Review of reviews: Stage

Pygmalion, The Quality of Life, Why Broadway might go dark.

Review of reviews: Stage

PygmalionAmerican Airlines Theater, New York (212) 719-1300

For Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw created two of theater’s most lively romantic sparring partners, said Ben Brantley in The New York Times. Then he got angry when audiences assumed Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle were “destined for the altar.” Though Shaw leaves the pair’s fate in question, the Roundabout Theater’s new Broadway production left me with no doubts. “There is not a whisper of mutual attraction between this production’s Eliza and Henry.” Claire Danes plays the cockney flower girl whom Higgins transforms into an upper-class lady by teaching her how to speak properly. Considering she’s just a movie star making her theatrical debut, she can’t be blamed. But veteran thespian Jefferson Mays makes a hash of Higgins, replacing the dapper professor we know and love with a petulant Edwardian mama’s boy. By exaggerating the character’s immaturity, director David Grindley ruins half the good jokes, and by emphasizing what should be subtext, he “shines a glaring light on the weakness of Pygmalion, on its repetitiveness and didacticism.” If you don’t like this Pygmalion, you probably just don’t like Shaw, said Terry Teachout in The Wall Street Journal. “I expect it’ll be a long time before we see any of Shaw’s plays done half so well on Broadway.” Any audience member who comes expecting the story told in My Fair Lady, Lerner and Loewe’s musical adaptation of the tale, may be surprised by the bitterness of the original. The real Pygmalion “is a double-edged satire of the British class system” that ruthlessly scores points against the pretenses of the ruling classes. By making Higgins “a fetching blend of mad scientist and spoiled brat,” Mays properly underscores that the transformation of Eliza is a type of social experiment. Danes answers his energetic performance with one of her own. She “has a great stage career ahead of her—if she wants it.” I entirely agree—about Danes, said Clive Barnes in the New York Post. The Broadway newcomer “gently but firmly dusts the floor with the Broadway professionals around her.” That includes the usually excellent Boyd Gaines, as Higgins’ sidekick Colonel Pickering, and Jay O. Sanders, as Eliza’s father. But all of this production’s failings and idiosyncrasies can be traced to Mays’ oddball Professor Higgins. “This spoiled, overgrown schoolboy might be what Shaw thought he wanted, but he’s charmless and not theatrically convincing.” Not unlike this unfortunate production.

The Quality of Life Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles (310) 208-5454

Jane Anderson’s new play reeks of relevance, said Charles McNulty in the Los Angeles Times. “Two middle-age couples, one from Northern California, the other from Ohio, square off over evolution and the Bible, medical marijuana, and the right of the terminally ill to end their lives.” Bill and Dinah are the Ohioans, born again after their daughter’s senseless murder. They’re visiting Dinah’s hippie cousin, Jeannette, whose husband, Neil, has late-stage cancer. After these characters share their competing tales of woe—and several surprisingly lively variations on familiar red-state/blue-state debates—“the plot leaps, somewhat implausibly, to a startling revelation.” Healthy Jeannette is about to end Neil’s life, and then her own. Anderson undoubtedly has tried to pack a few too many hot-button issues into this story, but the cooked-up premise blessedly fades into the background as we come to know these four tortured souls. The Quality of Life turns out to be a perfectly lovely play about love, grief, and faith. “It’s in those moments when characters are doing little more than intimately whispering to each other that The Quality of Life reveals a great deal about what matters most to us.” Anderson directed this production herself, said Evan Henerson in the Los Angeles Daily News. She has also assembled “one of the best casts to grace a local stage in recent memory.” As Bill, Scott Bakula “establishes himself as a moralistic, faith-spouting prig,” while JoBeth Williams makes a chirpy Dinah. Similarly, Laurie Metcalf’s Jeannette starts out as a sort of caricature, the quintessential aging hippie. But “then Anderson shakes up her characters’ beliefs, and everyone proves considerably more complicated.” Metcalf in particular takes her character on a harrowing journey from hope and humor to anger and despair. Anderson may have constructed her play to appeal primarily to the head, but “Metcalf will rip your heart out.”Why Broadwaymight go darkBroadway stagehands are set to strike, and performances could cease as early as next week, said Michael Kuchwara in the Associated Press. A union vote this week brought to a head a long standoff with Broadway’s League of American Theaters and Producers, primarily concerning how many jobs will be preserved in the next contract. Producers plan to implement new work rules, and “time could be running out for meaningful negotiations.” Stagehands cannot actually walk out until they receive authorization from their parent union, said Tania Padgett in Newsday, a process that “could take days or weeks.” Broadway’s three dozen large stages should remain operating in the meantime. But union local president James Claffey has made clear that his strategy is to pressure producers with the loss of box-office proceeds during the busy holiday season. “No work in December without a deal,” Claffey said.

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