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Pared-Down ‘Pygmalion’ a Luverly Comedy

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

George Bernard Shaw was one of the wordiest playwrights to ever put dialogue on paper. Theatre Guild founder Lawrence Langner once told the playwright that his plays could never be done properly until Shaw was dead and the plays could be cut.

That theory is somewhat borne out by an affectionate revival of “Pygmalion” on the Long Beach Playhouse’s Mainstage. Director Darlene Hunter Chaffee has whittled the script down to workable size, though some of the cuts, and some of the material left in, might be doubtful. The play is intact, however, and Chaffee’s staging clips along at all the proper tempos for Shaw’s witty dialogue.

Enough of GBS is still there--not only to make Shaw’s sociological points, but to give Chaffee’s company a good basis for generating the playwright’s undeniable laughs and to provide their characters, even in smaller roles, a well-rounded life.

The joy of the evening is the performance of Helena Schmied in the difficult leading role of Eliza Doolittle, the Covent Garden flower seller who gradually metamorphoses into a fine lady after being discovered by phonetics expert Prof. Henry Higgins. Schmied’s accents, both guttural Cockney and upper-class, are on the nose. She brings a warmth to the role that is refreshing, full of charm and purpose. Her flair for comic timing and delivery is most evident in the scene when Higgins takes her on a “test run” to his mother’s weekly “at home,” and Schmied gets very large laughs in her readings that few Elizas could manage.

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As the snobbish, self-centered, totally chauvinistic Higgins, Reed Boyer isn’t as successful. He understands the professor’s hauteur and his lack of ability to communicate with Eliza on a purely human level, but he misses the shadings that show how much of a game it all is to Higgins. In many scenes, in conversations with others, he is intensely interested in what they are saying, when Shaw’s Higgins actually would be bored to death with all of them, not just Eliza.

The rest of the cast members are solid in their support and mostly slip into their characters with little effort. Rowland Kerr’s Pickering, Higgins’ phonetics colleague, is laid back with just the right sense of amusement at the situation. Jeff Lappin fills the role of Freddy Eynsford-Hill with just enough priggish dumbness to show that he is a Colonel Blimp in the making.

Joanne Underwood couldn’t be better as Higgins’ often distraught housekeeper, and Mitchell Nunn never crosses the line into overdoing the Cockney caricature that is Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s garrulous father. Kathy Davis is also very good as Higgins’ bemused mother, but at moments seems to be doing a Dame Edith Evans reading in the role, and frequently seems unsure of her lines.

At the performance reviewed here, Ron Smith played the role of Nepommuck (usually played by Bob Chaffee), and Smith happily captured the sleazy, smarmy ex-student of Higgins, who amuses the professor by announcing that the finished Eliza is not English at all, but a Hungarian princess.

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* “Pygmalion,”

Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage, 5701 E. Anaheim St. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, July 19, 26 and Aug. 2, 2 p.m. Ends Aug. 8. $10-$15. (562) 494-1616. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

Helena Schmied: Eliza Doolittle

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Reed Boyer: Prof. Henry Higgins

Rowland Kerr: Col. Pickering

Joanne Underwood: Mrs. Pearce

Mitchell Nunn: Alfred Doolittle

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Jeff Lappin: Freddy Eynsford-Hill

Kathy Davis: Mrs. Higgins

Ron Smith: Nepommuck

A Long Beach Playhouse revival of G.B. Shaw’s comedy. Sound design/directed by Darlene Hunter Chaffee. Scenic design: Snezana Petrovic. Lighting design: Gary Stamford. Costume design: Donna Fritsche. Technical direction: John H. Nokes. Wig design: Mark Travis Hoyer. Stage manager: Ron Smith.

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