Despite its concern with speech and the English class system, Shaw's "Pygmalion" is a Cinderella story in which Cinderella realizes how fragile a glass slipper can be.
Shaw was fanciful enough to imagine a lower class girl being transformed into an elegant young woman, but he was too aware of human absurdity to believe that her transformation would leave her "happy ever after."
Val May's production, with a cast largely imported from London (praised be Actors Equity!), shows an equal awareness of such absurdities. May has given the actors wonderful business throughout (particularly in the tea party scene) that heightens the comedy.
Even weaknesses in the two leads cannot spoil the overall pleasure of the production. Peter O'Toole, though properly abrasive, is a rather languid Henry Higgins. But even when he looks like an aging dandy, his features are still arresting, able to project irony with the merest upturn of a lip.
Amanda Plummer is strongest as a flower girl, much less convincing or natural when she is supposed to be mature. Also, Higgins apparently did not have time to deal with speech problems like her mushy s's, which weaken the sense of transformation.
The supporting cast is marvelous, particularly Lionel Jeffries as Pickering, Dora Bryan as Mrs. Pearce and Osmund Bullock as the nitwit Freddy. John Mills is a stalwart Alfred Doolittle, Joyce Redman an admirable Mrs. Higgins.
Among the delights of the production is the natural, unamplified sound of human voices.
If you want to know what Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion" is like, just think of "My Fair Lady" without the music! Ironically, here and now, with "Pygmalion" there is a real danger of the musical tale wagging the dramatic dog.
Alan Jay Lerner adapted Shaw so faithfully but so adroitly, Frederick Loewe melodically embellished it so miraculously, that it is almost impossible now to see the play without hearing the musical as a spectral counterpoint in the background.
This is a pity, because "Pygmalion," far from a dog, is one of Shaw's best - and least preachily doctrinaire - plays, but luckily it still survives.
And it should have no difficulty in surviving as long as it can receive such lively productions as this new Val May staging, which opened at the Plymouth Theater last night, starring Amanda Plummer, Sir John Mills, Dora Bryan, Lionel Jeffries, Joyce Redman, and, making his far too belated Broadway debut, Peter O'Toole.
It is an admirably straightforward play, all about phonetics and the sad fact that, in Shaw's words: "The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it," or as Lerner more elegantly put it: "Why won't the English teach their children how to speak?"
Professor Higgins, the phoneticist, who picks up Eliza, "a squashed cabbage leaf" of a flower girl outside Covent Garden, and, for a bet, transforms her speech and manners into a lively representation of a Duchess, has elements of Pygmalion creating his Galatea. But - luckily for Shaw's public - the play is also, as he well knew, a Cinderella story.
There are only two problems facing the play's director. The first is deciding which text to use, the original 1912, or the 1938, which is an odd mixture of the older text with the filmscript Shaw did for Gabriel Pascal's movie, including some scenes never intended for the stage.
The second problem is to decide who is to be this Eliza/Cinderella's Prince Charming, the formidable Henry Higgins, or the affably weak-natured Freddy Eynsford Hill?
This production, which settles fundamentally for the filmscript (most stagings do nowadays), seems, unlike the musical, very gently to push the conclusion in the direction of Shaw's own fixed determination off-stage, that Eliza married Freddy.
The trouble is that when you have a credible Higgins and a likable Eliza, sex - however alien to Shaw's nature and even text - is almost always going to emerge; and audiences have, at least, from Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller in the film version onwards, instinctively wanted them to get together after the curtain.
Unquestionably in the present production there is a very strong sexual tension between O'Toole's Higgins and Miss Plummer's Eliza, and O'Toole's final incredulously amused cackling of: "Freddy! Freddy!" suggests that he too finds Shaw's conclusion untenable.
O'Toole looks a natural Higgins, elegantly untidy, lankily ready to drape himself around furniture, and with a fine and natural arrogance.
He starts badly - he sounds like someone imitating James Cagney imitating Charles Laughton putting down a particularly rough mutiny on the Bounty - but very soon warms charmingly to his task.
I have almost always admired O'Toole on stage - from his earliest days - but he does have the none-too-minor fault of playing to the scenery and himself rather than his fellow actors and the audience.
Higgins, as O'Toole earlier found with Hamlet at Britain's National Theater, is an admirable vehicle for such procedures, and they serve the actor here beautifully. His voice, however, did lack the singlemindedness of elocution one might reasonably expect from a phoneticist.
Miss Plummer's Eliza proved a surprise and a delight. Her accents were delicately calculated, her radiant common sense exemplary.
Other performances equally sterling came from Miss Bryan's deliciously funny, sweet, and pretty Mrs. Pearce, and Sir John Mills taking and giving terrific pleasure from that dustman/philosopher, Alfred Doolittle.
Mr. Jeffries was perhaps a shade too bumblingly conventional as Pickering - it is rather the club-bore way the role is written - and perhaps Joyce Redman proved a shade too bland as Higgins's gracious but long-suffering mother.
Still, without question, this is a sound, pleasant, and lively "Pygmalion," the best since John Dexter's production with the very different and anti-romantic Alec McCowen, and the gloss, class, and essential quality of the staging is enhanced by Douglas Heap's appropriate settings and Terence Emery's stylish costumes.
But what keeps the night buoyant is the canny wit of Shaw's play, and the sublime confidence of the acting. Together they make you forget - at least momentarily - that musical that once danced all night.
The erratic amusements offered by Broadway's new revival of ''Pygmalion'' may have only a glancing connection to Shaw's wonderful play, but it would be folly to pretend that they don't exist. Not every day do New Yorkers get to see a precise replica of a London ''all star'' mounting of a classic - the sort of package that draws busloads of international tourists and British provincials to the Haymarket.
A production like this is not to be confused with the rarefied imports from the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theater or, at the other end of the esthetic spectrum, with Broadway's own star assemblages, such as the current ''Blithe Spirit.'' The entertainment at the Plymouth - from its crazy-quilt assortment of titled and plebian marquee names to its elaborate yet slightly tatty scenery - defines the West End midweek matinee. This is theater to sip Earl Grey tea by.
Those who attend with the proper expectations will be diverted by at least half - the first half - of the unhurried, nearly three-hour-long proceedings. Much of that enjoyment is provided by Peter O'Toole, whose display of star attitude is often commanding even when out of sync with the character of Henry Higgins. Modeling an ever-changing array of bespoke Edwardian tailoring, the tall, reedy actor rules this ''Pygmalion'' on the grounds of elegance and talent, if not always concentration. Mr. O'Toole has no qualms about making goo-goo eyes directly at the audience, if that's what it takes to keep its attention - and, given that the eyes retain the iridescent blue of ''Lawrence of Arabia,'' who will complain?
His is a funny, if odd, performance. The intelligence, arrogance and ill-mannered bullying of Wimpole Street's master phonetician are all accounted for: Mr. O'Toole relishes those moments when Higgins can bark an ''Oh, shut up!'' at his ''deliciously low'' pupil, Eliza Doolittle (Amanda Plummer). One also feels the emotional detachment of a man Shaw described as ''a confirmed bachelor with a mother fixation.'' The solitary, almost cadaverous laughter with which Mr. O'Toole brings down the final curtain is not the sentimental chuckling of a secret romantic but the braying triumph of a chilly, cynical intellect.
Such achievements co-exist with interludes in which the star seems to drift away. Mr. O'Toole has a habit of tilting a bit from side to side when standing. When he sinks in an armchair to listen to Alfred Doolittle's marital plans during the final act, the actor allows his face to register boredom as well: His glazed-over look is that of a first-class ocean-liner passenger who has grown sick of his card partners three days into a trans-Atlantic crossing. The star's vocal pyrotechnics can also be weird. If Rex Harrison famously ''talked'' the songs when playing Henry Higgins in ''My Fair Lady,'' Mr. O'Toole has a tendency to sing the talk. Some of his longer speeches rattle by at considerable speed, all the while running up and down a scale ranging from sonorous baritone to near-falsetto.
The most damaging handicap afflicting this Higgins, however, has nothing to do with Mr. O'Toole's own acting. Miss Plummer, an impassioned performer in other circumstances, proves to be every bit as miscast in this Shaw comedy as she was in ''You Never Can Tell'' earlier this season. Her Liza is unbelievable whether spunky or weepy, whether in her Cockney flower-girl guise or in her later Cinderella turn as a well-spoken, ersatz duchess. Only after the heroine achieves her last and most significant metamorphosis - by ceasing to be a ''slave'' to gentility and seizing her real independence as a woman - does some uncontrived passion seep through. ''I only want to be natural,'' says Liza then, and that's the single occasion when Miss Plummer is.
Without a credible leading lady prior to that very late point, ''Pygmalion'' inevitably must collapse during the Higgins-Liza conflicts of Shaw's fourth and fifth acts (divided between Acts II and III here). But it would be wrong to blame Miss Plummer's performance alone for the flatter stretches. Joyce Redman, whose regal maternal appearance as Mrs. Higgins is defeated by a spineless characterization, denies Mr. O'Toole another crucial foil. As Liza's father, Sir John Mills gives impeccably spoken yet completely unfunny readings of Doolittle's diatribes about ''middle-class morality.'' There's nothing Falstaffian about Sir John's dustman, and his subsequent leap to respectability proves as undynamic a transformation as the one Miss Plummer provides in dialectical contrast.
The other performances are all over the map, sometimes pleasingly so. As Higgins's housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, the diminutive, handsome Dora Bryan reveals her roots as a sparky, longtime English music-hall artist. Lionel Jeffries's quintessential Colonel Pickering is reassuring to a fault; only the color of the tweeds draped over his geniality varies from act to act. The Eynsford Hill mother and daughter (Mary Peach and Kirstie Pooley) are much too willing to prove Higgins's contention that all women ''might as well be blocks of wood,'' while brother Freddy (Osmund Bullock) is a society twit from the rear ranks of the ''Me and My Girl'' chorus. Even so, neither they nor Miss Plummer's perfunctory comic delivery can mar the foolproof tea-party scene in which Liza first tries to pass as posh.
Aside from choreographing that farcical apex and taking liberties with Shaw's text, the director, Val May, has principally concerned himself with placating any theatergoers who would rather be at ''My Fair Lady.'' The curtain rises to trashy recorded music seemingly chosen to mimic the first bars of the musical's overture, and two scenes in succession end with the actors raising their arms in glee as if they had just sung ''The Rain in Spain.'' The intended parallels falter in the physical production. The hideous female costumes of this ''Pygmalion'' owe nothing to Cecil Beaton, and Douglas Heap's otherwise decent scenic design is marred by Mrs. Higgins's drawing room, a riot of chartreuse that puts the chintzy back into chintz. But such eccentricities, too, are part of the frayed charm of a show that is as authentically English as a Harrod's display window and, at its liveliest, somewhat more animate.