George Bernard Shaw's most convivial play — he subtitled it a "Romance in Five Acts" — Pygmalion takes on class consciousness with a breezy attitude and romantic comedy with an icy stare.
The play, which premiered in 1913 and is now running at the Alley Theatre in a fine production, is the story of cockney flower girl Eliza (Elizabeth Bunch), who finds herself the subject of an "experiment" by Higgins (Todd Waite), the result of a bet with Pickering (James Black), to see whether he might transform her from ragged guttersnipe with "kerbstone English" to a supposed duchess with perfect English diction, all in three months' time.
Trying to convince Eliza to go with him and Pickering, Higgins plies her with chocolates. He eats half of one himself to prove it's not laced with poison (Eliza's well-acquainted with how some gentlemen procure their girls), and then pops the other half into her astonished mouth. I doubt if Shaw intended the gesture to be so scandalous, but it is. Deliciously so.
There are so many fine touches like these sprinkled throughout the Alley Theatre's smoothly satisfying production of the play that they're difficult to catalog.
When Eliza's cagey dustman of a father, Alfred Doolittle (John Tyson), follows his daughter in order to blackmail Higgins, he's asked politely to sit down. To wipe the chair, he pulls out his soiled handkerchief with great ceremony, and a plume of dust erupts out of it.
In lilac Edwardian gowns, embroidered with crisp Tiffany-style beading, Henry's mother (Elizabeth Shepherd) is a stained-glass window of upper-crust propriety. She overlays the play with warm maternal sensibility when not dressing down her son for his bullying and impropriety. A cloud of white curls gently ring her face and bounce appealingly when she gets flummoxed by "men, men, men!"
Higgins's confidant Pickering nearly disappears into the woodwork, but his consistently good manners and soft way of expressing "Miss Doolittle" confirm his bachelor's status will likely remain far into the future.
"I just wish to trouble you with a word, if I may," interrupts Mrs. Pearce (Kay Walbye), Higgins's mother hen housekeeper, who proceeds to take him to task for his infernal swearing and table manners. Walbye does so with a face that says, "I mean it this time." When he steadfastly denies ever using the B word (that would be "bloody"), her double take is heaven-sent.
And let's not forget Act III, when Eliza is put to her first test in polite society at Mrs. Higgins's, where the eagerly conventional Eynsford-Hill family appears for tea (SuEllen Estey, Melissa Pritchett, Chris Hutchison). Using over-exaggerated speech and languid gestures as if her arms were semaphores, Bunch plays the scene with a sly crescendo of comic tics and spot-on timing as Eliza dives ever deeper into off-color, personal tales of her mother's gin intake and her aunt's being "done in" by wayward relatives. The whole charade is capped by her stunning exit line and parade walk out of the room. It's Shaw at his frivolous best, and Bunch at hers.
Higgins eventually triumphs in passing off Eliza as a duchess, but, to his surprise, he's also radically changed the rest of her. "What am I to do now?" she pleads in plummy tones. She knows too much to go back to her former life, but she's ill prepared for a future one. The play's last scene, a fiery face-off, is heat but no passion, not from Higgins anyway, who wants her to return "as a daughter," or to marry Pickering, or just "for the fun of it." She wants something more.
It's one of theater's most perplexing endings, but it remains true to Higgins and the new Eliza (and to what we know of Shaw and his endless, platonic love affairs).
Waite is appropriately priggy and self-satisfied as Higgins, with that cool, scientific detachment that Shavian heroes inevitably possess; and Bunch, as noted above, turns from "bilious pigeon," cawing those famous ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-oos!, to radiant swan, to free-thinking, independent woman. From the beginning, as she's hawking her flowers in the rain, she's got us smack in the palm of her soon-to-be elegant hand. John Tyson greases Doolittle, the undeserving poor, with plenty of snake-oil charm to ease his way into the middle class. He goes kicking all the way.
The Edwardian world is scenically conjured by designer Neil Patel in the dark-wood laboratory of Higgins and the cabbage-rose drawing room of Mrs. Higgins, as well as in the intricate, Poiret-inspired costumes by Alejo Vietti. Directed by Anders Cato with understated style, Shaw gets his due, Eliza gets self-respect, Higgins gets a comeuppance and we get a glorious evening in the theater. We hardly miss that bloody music.
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