The Pygmalion at the American Airlines Theatre could have run in repertory with last year’s splendid revival of Journey’s End. They share the same director, David Grindley; two of the performers, Jefferson Mays as a prissy Henry Higgins and Boyd Gaines as a stiff upper lipped Col. Pickering (and a third, stage debutante Claire Danes as Liza Doolittle, who is the girlfriend of the prior show’s co-star Hugh Dancy); and much of the design team. It would definitely be the second banana on the bill, however. It’s a pleasure to hear George Bernard Shaw’s words minus the musicalization Lerner and Loewe grafted onto them for My Fair Lady. But you keep slotting in the ubiquitous songs regardless, and it must be said that their embroidery to the storyline (like the accent training scenes, which Shaw skipped over to get right to the upper-class transformation) provides considerable charm. Shaw’s vision of Higgins molding a fellow person like clay was colder and less sentimental, and this production captures the chill but not the warmth.
The American Airlines is a sizable proscenium house, so the decision to roll in low-slung sets under cover of darkness was a curious one, befitting the trench-set play but not one set amongst high society. Jonathan Fensom’s costumes are lovely but his settings seem cramped and airless. Jason Taylor’s illumination is heavy-spirited, too. Gregory Clarke’s audio captures Liza’s every squawk, which Danes delivers in a competent but somewhat monotonous performance. (This is another PRG-equipped show save for Sound Associates’ audio). I should mention that at the top of the show there is Jauchem and Meeh-provided rainfall showering the actors, but it’s not the “rain in Spain,” and its absence was keenly felt.
Compassion fatigue has set in with the London import The Overwhelming, now Off Broadway at the Laura Pels. The saga of Rwanda, as seen in documentaries, feature films, and TV shows, has been displaced by the fresher hell of Darfur, and J.T. Rogers’ play has little new to say on a subject of great importance but, alas, exhaustible dramatic interest. Too much of it is speeches targeted at the liberal guilt-bearing American family that foolishly comes to the country just as it is about to explode into genocidal ethnic cleansing, and hand-wringing over this and that does not an involving evening make. There is one compelling supporting performance, by Michael Stahl-David as an American teenager given a rude awakening to the cruelties of life, but Sam Robards as his professor dad and Linda Powell as his African-American stepmother have blandly written characters to play and the show, evenly but unexcitingly directed by Max Stafford-Clark never transforms history into drama.
Tim Shortall’s garden party set functions effectively as that but the performers too often have to pantomime their way into suggesting other locales, which is as taxing for us as it is for them. Tobin Ost’s costumes have splashes of African color about them but otherwise tend toward monochrome, as does David Weiner’s lighting. Gareth Fry’s sound design, with its sudden squalls and rainstorms, is the most evocative element. (Global Scenic Services and Tom Carroll Scenery put together the set, PRG supplied the lights, and Masque Sound the audio.) There is at the very end a sudden reveal as the back wall, which has a skull or two built in, falls away—this might have been stunning had several other British imports not used the same shock tactic. The Overwhelming underwhelms. –Robert Cashill