WATERTOWN — For the better part of its 100-year existence, George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” has been overshadowed by “My Fair Lady,” the 1956 Lerner and Loewe musical version, in which, at the end, cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle seems to express her love for Professor Henry Higgins, the man who taught her “proper” English. Shaw anticipated that audiences would want to see the pair wind up together; in 1916, just two years after his play’s London premiere, he penned a postscript essay “explaining” that Eliza would never have married Higgins and that she in fact wed out-of-pocket aristocrat Freddy Eynsford Hill, even though Freddy barely registers in the play proper.
What Shaw couldn’t have anticipated is that, a century after the 1914 premiere, Flat Earth Theatre would set his play in the London Underground, with a totalitarian police state ruling the streets above. Devon Jones has cleverly adapted “Pygmalion,” with minimal adjusting of Shaw’s script, to take place in different tube stations: Covent Garden, Bond Street, Pimlico, King’s Cross St. Pancras, and Waterloo.
Allison Olivia Choat’s whimsically minimal set comprises a simplified, but quite accurate, map of the London Underground painted on the floor, a set of heavy wooden benches, and the red-white-and-blue Underground symbol with “Pygmalion” in the ID bar. Throughout the production, a female voice (in accent and cadence much like the actual London Underground’s) will announce that service on this or that line is experiencing delays, if it’s not suspended altogether. That same voice at the beginning of the show will ask you to turn off your cellphones and advise you to “be prepared to surrender them in case of a random search.”
All of which is great fun, but it doesn’t clarify the play’s themes. Neither do Cara Chiaramonte’s costumes define the time period. Higgins and Colonel Pickering wear wing collars, Pickering adds to that a cane and bowler, and the ladies are nicely done up in outfits appropriate to 1914. Yet Eliza enters in jeans and sneakers, and the man from Hoxton sports a mullet and leopard-skin leggings. And though you can’t use your cellphone during the show, Eliza and Mrs. Higgins are free to use theirs, getting service even in the deepest tube stations.
What matters, however, is that this is Shaw’s “Pygmalion” pretty much as written (with one unfortunately sentimental addition that brings together Eliza and Freddy), on the whole well acted, and clocking in at a reasonable 2½ hours.
A disheveled, red-nosed Stephen Turner is a joy to watch, and listen to, as Eliza’s father; Tom Beyer’s august Pickering and Katie Bond’s no-nonsense Mrs. Higgins are not far behind. Allison Matteodo is a bit callow for Higgins’s housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, but flirts nicely with Higgins in the role of Freddy’s nubile sister, Clara. Choat’s Freddy is stiff and tight-lipped; if this is a directorial choice on Jones’s part, it’s an odd one.
As Higgins, a round-faced Chris Chiampa is more obviously a mama’s boy than Leslie Howard was in the Shaw-scripted 1938 film, or Rex Harrison was on Broadway. It’s a serious, well thought-out reading of an engaging character who’s totally absorbed in himself. Jaclyn Johnson is likewise an accomplished Eliza, particularly in her accent, but she and Chiampa can be shrill with each other, and though Shaw argues that Eliza wouldn’t put up with Higgins as a husband, a little romantic tension here wouldn’t hurt. Johnson is best at her softest; when Pickering addresses her Eliza as “Miss Doolittle,” she beams broadly enough to dispel even Shaw’s cynicism.