To many, George Bernard Shaw's fabled study of social class in early-20th-century London is My Fair Lady without the songs. And indeed, some scenes so closely resemble the ones in Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's musical masterpiece that at times you expect characters to burst into song.
But talk is what Shaw's characters do best, and although director David Grindley (Journey’s End) coaxes energetic performances from his leads, Emmy winner Claire Danes in her Broadway debut and Tony winner Jefferson Mays (I Am My Own Wife), his Henry Higgins and her Eliza Doolittle never establish enough of a connection to fill their final parting with much resonance.
Granted, the love/hate relationship between a phonetics professor and the impoverished flower girl he bets he can turn into a lady is not as fully developed here as it is in Lerner's libretto, and Mays displays Higgins' pomposity with full force, interestingly playing him as a bratty mama's boy rather than, more customarily, an overbearing authority figure. But he misses the subtler sides of his character, notably his growing affection for Eliza. Danes, meanwhile, is an appropriately scruffy, spunky waif when she meets Higgins in the opening scene, but she cleans up too easily, both physically and psychologically, for a poor, underprivileged girl who's had to fend for herself.
Shaw's sharp social commentary is what really shines in Grindley's articulate, handsome Roundabout Theatre production. (And Jonathan Fensom's costumes and sets provide lovely eye candy.) Jay O. Sanders stands out as Eliza's charmingly callous father, Alfred, who smoothly "sells" her to Higgins while spouting keen observations about social mores. He and Helen Carey, as Higgins' delightfully feisty mother, strike an ideal balance of humor and humanity.
There's little chemistry between Higgins and Eliza, however, and, yearning for more, it's tempting to shout, as Lerner's Eliza does, "Show me!"
By DIANE SNYDER
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Jefferson Mays, Claire Danes, Boyd Gaines, Jay O. Sanders, Helen Carey, Brenda Wehle, Kerry Bishé, Kieran Campion, Sandra Shipley, Tony Carlin, Jonathan Fielding, Robin Moseley, Doug Stender, Karen Walsh
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036