Pygmalion, Apple Tree Theatre. “What I complain of is that with his reserves and ironies, and by a certain caprice and waywardness of thought, Mr. Shaw has failed to show his audience precisely what he meant,” wrote a critic about Pygmalion’s 1914 London premiere. But ambiguity is the enduring strength of George Bernard Shaw’s comedy about a cranky philologist who transforms a cockney guttersnipe into a lady–who then turns into an independent woman. Is Henry Higgins a charming eccentric or a boorish bully? Does his protege Eliza fall in love with him or turn her back on him forever? These questions, which every production must confront anew, make the play resonate emotionally even though its analysis of speech and status in a class-conscious society has been rendered obsolete.
Unfortunately, whatever interpretive slant director William Brown may have intended to convey is compromised by Daniel J. Travanti’s failure to suggest anything remotely appealing about Higgins, who comes off as a boring old fogy. Kate Fry is unconvincing as the raffish street peddler but charms as the refined Eliza: her social debut, when her polite small talk gradually slips into the earthy slang of her upbringing, is hilarious–in part because the scene relegates Higgins to the sidelines. Travanti seems more interested in overenunciating his lines, paradoxically making them harder to understand, than he is in engaging with his fellow actors. If he’s trying to portray Higgins’s detachment, he succeeds only in conveying his own aloofness.