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A CurtainUp Review

By Jenny Sandman

The real difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she is treated. --Eliza Doolittle, Pygmalion
I treat everyone the same-like a flower girl.---Professor Henry Higgins, Pygmalion
Kate Holland as Eliza
Jay Nickerson as Higgins
Kate Holland as Eliza Jay Nickerson as Higgins
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
Many of Shaw's plays are full of witty, banter and Pygmalion is the banter-richest and best-loved of his oeuvre, the basis for the musical My Fair Lady. Jean Cocteau Rep's revival of the play, which is itself based on the Greek myth about Pygmalion (who sculpted a woman out of marble and then fell in love with his creation), is spirited but stiff.

Shaw explores the relationship between phonetics scholar Henry Higgins and a Covent Garden flower girl, Eliza Doolittle. He also examines the Victorian notions of society and class. Higgins takes a bet that in six months he can turn the common, low-class flower girl into a duchess, simply by changing her speech and mannerisms. He takes Eliza into his home and tutors her in grammar, pronunciation, and decorum, and sure enough, he wins his bet. At a high-society garden party, no one has the slightest idea Eliza used to be "a guttersnipe,"

The professor and guttersnipe relationship is a rocky one. The Professor, lost in his science, is completely oblivious and self-centered. He talks about Eliza in her presence without realizing she can hear him. Eliza chafes under his tutelage, wishing he would show her a little respect. Pygmalion, like many late Victorian plays, reinforced Britain's class structure even while advocating class mobility. Eliza can move up in the world, but she misses her freedom and her friends, and she doesn't fit in among the upper classes. In this world, everybody is happiest when they're in a familiar environment.

Shaw exposes the inadequacies of myth and romance in several ways, not least in the aborted romance between Higgins and Eliza. It's a romance that would never have made it off the ground in this production anyway since Higgins (Jay Nickerson) and Eliza (Kate Holland) have an almost utter lack of chemistry. And while Nickerson is one of the best actors in the cast (rivaling only Angus Hepburn, who steals the show as Eliza's father), the rest of the cast is wooden at best. Holland, especially, overdoes it with her sniveling and whining, and adopts a wide, ungainly sort of lower-class physicality.

Understandably, the accents are integral to the show, as Eliza's chief battle is to overcome her Cockney accent, but the production might have been better served without them. However, in this production they're awful. I don't think Shaw meant for everyone's speaking voice to be dreadful.

Hepburn is a real find and one hopes to see more of him at the Cocteau. Director Rose Burnett Bonczek was wise to let him and Holland steal their respective scenes. In other aspects, this is a solid production. It moves crisply, has a very clever folding set and the costumes are vivid and well researched. With better casting (or at least a better speech coach) this could have sung, even without the music. c

Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Rose Burnett Bonczek
With Sara Jeanne Asselin, Ramona Floyd, Mickey Ryan, Danaher Dempsey, Kate Holland, Melanie Hopkins, Tim Morton, Jay Nickerson, Lynn Marie Macy, Angus Hepburn, and Marlene May
Lighting Design by David Kniep
Costume Design by Viviane Galloway
Set Design by Michael Carnahan
Running time: Two hours and twenty minutes with one fifteen-minute intermission
Jean Cocteau Repertory, 330 Bowery; 212-279-4200
12/3/04 through 03/27/05; opening 12/12/05
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on December 8th press performance
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