WILLIAMSTOWN — George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion’’ has been so thoroughly eclipsed by Lerner and Loewe’s musical adaptation, “My Fair Lady,’’ that you half-expect the cast to burst into song whenever you see the original play.
But Shaw’s witty words are music enough in Nicholas Martin’s beguiling production of “Pygmalion’’ at Williamstown Theatre Festival, starring a low-key Robert Sean Leonard as Professor Henry Higgins and a thoroughly winning Heather Lind as Eliza Doolittle.
Martin has devised a visual coda for this double-edged tale of transformation that, while much closer to the spirit of Shaw’s ending than “My Fair Lady,’’ still manages to artfully pluck our heartstrings. Alexander Dodge’s rotating set is simply magnificent, especially his representation of Higgins’s abode on London’s Wimpole Street. Containing masks, busts, paintings, and a pipe organ that sits atop a platform, the home bespeaks the restless appetite of a compulsive Edwardian-era collector.
That is clearly how Higgins sees Eliza, at least at first: as a human trophy he can add to his collection of professional triumphs, once the world-renowned phonetics expert has taught the Cockney flower girl how to talk like a lady. So Higgins readily enters into a wager with Colonel Pickering, portrayed by the estimable Paxton Whitehead, that he can elevate and refine Eliza’s diction to the point that she can pass as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party.
It was Rex Harrison, of course, who defined the role of Henry Higgins, portraying him on stage and screen in “My Fair Lady’’ as an erudite, growling bulldog. Leonard’s mild Higgins could use more bark and more bite. Last year this fine actor wrapped up an eight-year stint as Wilson, the sensible, self-effacing foil to the misanthropic title character on “House.’’ Now that Leonard’s the one playing the misanthrope, there’s a bit too much Wilson in his Higgins.
Leonard is youthful and handsome in appearance, whereas Harrison was neither, and the romantic undercurrents to Higgins’s relationship with Eliza in Williamstown’s “Pygmalion’’ are vastly more persuasive than the May-December aura suffusing the film version of “My Fair Lady,’’ with a radiant Audrey Hepburn opposite the crotchety Harrison.
Lind is not Hepburn — no one is — but she’s pretty terrific. When Eliza walks in exaggeratedly stately fashion into an upper-crust gathering in the drawing room at Higgins’s mother’s and proceeds to try out her newly rarefied diction, the effect is hilarious. She sounds like Billie Burke’s Glinda the Good Witch from “The Wizard of Oz,’’ but on Quaaludes.
Lind’s Eliza cuts an exceptionally bedraggled figure in the opening scene, set in Covent Garden. This Eliza genuinely does undergo a transmutation, physical as well as verbal. The statuesque stunner in evening gown and silver shawl in Act 2 (costumes are by Gabriel Berry and Andrea Hood) does seem like a different person altogether from the squawking, scuttling ragamuffin of Act 1’s early scenes.
But we hear about, rather than see, the new version of Eliza dazzling high society at the garden party, a dinner party, and the opera. As Act 2 of “Pygmalion’’ begins, the evening is over, and so is the “experiment,’’ as Higgins and Pickering call it. Eliza sits silent and despondent on the far side of the stage while the men crow about what they see as their success, vouchsafing not a word of praise or congratulations to her, nor even so much as glancing her way.
Martin, the former artistic director at Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Huntington Theatre Company, is riding a professional high at the moment: His production of Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,’’ a Chekhov-inspired satire, is a hit on Broadway. (“Vanya’’ also won the Tony Award for best play last month.) Well before that poignant final image, the director’s deft hand can be detected in this “Pygmalion,’’ as when Higgins’s housekeeper (Caitlin O’Connell) starts giving her wayward boss a good talking-to and Leonard sinks down, sprawls across the floor, and wearily lays his head on an ottoman.
The supporting cast is strong. Don Lee Sparks chomps with gusto on the juicy role of Eliza’s reprobate father, Alfred P. Doolittle, amusingly bemoaning the way “middle-class morality’’ keeps intruding on his devil-may-care existence. Maureen Anderman is imposing as Higgins’s mother, not in the least cowed by her gruff son.
Neither is Eliza. It’s certainly not an easy path she travels, but as she herself would put it, Eliza eventually gets a bit of her own back. Watching Lind do it is so much fun that you do eventually silence those nagging echoes of “The Rain in Spain,’’ “On the Street Where You Live’’ and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face’’ that keep running through your head.