NEW YORK — Pygmalion. Comedy by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Paul Weidner. Starring Anthony Heald, Earle Hyman, Charles Keating, Anne Pitoniak, Madeleine Potter. At the Roundabout Theatre Company through April 28.
THE Roundabout Theatre Company continues its 25th anniversary season celebration with a "Pygmalion" generally worth celebrating. A lively cast headed by Anthony Heald's Henry Higgins and Madeleine Potter's Eliza Doolittle fulfills the comic and dramatic purposes of the Shavian tale about a dogmatic phonetics professor and the spirited cockney flower girl who survives his curriculum and his domination. Along the way, Shaw satirizes the society whose class barriers can be breached by the command of accept able speech and/or the possession of the requisite wealth.
In his recent biography, "Bernard Shaw: The Pursuit of Power," Michael Holroyd quotes Shaw on "Pygmalion": "I call it a romance because it is the story of a poor girl who meets a gentleman at a church door and is transformed by him into a beautiful lady. That is what I call a romance. It is what everybody calls a romance, so for once we are all agreed."
Well, not quite all. From its 1914 British premi 143&gt;re to its musical treatment in "My Fair Lady," the urge to interpret the "romance" as an affair of the heart between Eliza and Henry has persisted. The Roundabout revival, astutely staged by Paul Weidner, takes Shaw on his own terms. There is no doubt about the mutual attraction that plays a part in the growing conflict between Henry and Eliza. But there is equally no doubt about the independence of their natures.
In his stage directions, Shaw described Professor Higgins as "a very impetuous baby, 'taking notice' eagerly and loudly, and requiring almost as much notice to keep him out of unintended mischief. His manner varies from genial bullying when he is in a good humor to stormy petulance when anything goes wrong; but he is so entirely frank and void of malice that he remains likeable even in his least reasonable moments."
Mr. Heald answers to Shaw's description, whether this Higgins is tyrannizing his prize pupil, bantering with her rascally father, insulting the guests at his mother's "at home," or inveighing against a social system with which he has no patience. The Heald Higgins has the passion of his convictions. He is partnered by a model Eliza.
Miss Potter proceeds confidently through the stages of the flower girl's transformation: at first the bawling "squashed cabbage leaf" of the Covent Garden opening; then the obedient puppet whose grammatical reach amusingly exceeds her conversational grasp; finally, the embittered yet triumphant Eliza - aware that what she has learned she can now teach others. The actress supplies the gravity that goes to the heart of the comedy. Furthermore, she can be charmingly picturesque in the picture hat provided by costume designer Martin Pakledinaz.
Charles Keating places his inimitable stamp on the role of wily Alfred Doolittle, the "thinking man" forced by unexpected fortune into becoming a reluctant bourgeois gentleman. Earle Hyman's Colonel Pickering personifies avuncular gallantry. Joyce Worsley is a dryly no-nonsense Mrs. Pearce. The matronly role in a bygone age is well displayed by Anne Pitoniak (tolerant Mrs. Higgins) and Annie Murray (tony Mrs. Eynsford-Hill).