It's always a delight to encounter the disputatious wit of George Bernard Shaw, a playwright who thought comedy was at its fizzy best when ideas were allowed to collide in the service of public enlightenment. His characters embody divergent ideological positions and, regardless of the legitimacy of their views, can advocate for themselves with giddy conviction and an eloquence that can run circles around the rest of us tongue-tied mortals.
"Pygmalion" may be Shaw's best-known work, thanks largely to the Lerner & Loewe musical blockbuster it gave rise to, "My Fair Lady." The play, fortunately, doesn't need a score when performed in the right hands — Shaw's garrulous and unfailingly clever gab is music all its own.
That music is only intermittently realized in Jessica Kubzansky's unevenly acted production of "Pygmalion," which opened Sunday at the Pasadena Playhouse. While largely faithful to Shaw's 1913 comedy, this revival gives the play a makeover almost as startling as the one phonetics professor Henry Higgins gives to the Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle.
The period is kept vaguely Victorian, with stiff and formal (and not particularly eye-catching) costumes by Leah Piehl and drawing room accouterments such as a writing desk, an ottoman and a collection of impressively arrayed books establishing the elevated social milieu. But Stephanie Kerley Schwartz's adventurous scenic design conjures a steampunk backdrop, with an industrial staircase in Higgins' home that is softened when repurposed for his mother's more gracious salon.
The new look that Kubzansky, the co-artistic director of the Theatre @ Boston Court, has devised for "Pygmalion" subliminally suggests that Higgins' study is both a prison and an S&M club. There's no doubt here about the underlying callousness of Higgins' project of making what he calls "a duchess of this draggletailed guttersnipe."
But creating a novel visual life for the production seems to have taken precedence over the acting. The ensemble, led by Bruce Turk's Henry Higgins and Paige Lindsey White's Eliza Doolittle, is erratic not only in the handling of accents (a liability with a play in which speech advertises social class) but also in arriving at a unified playing style.
It was difficult to recover from the poorly staged first act. The characters are all caught in the rain outside a theater. This is where Higgins, with his scientific ears, first encounters Eliza's caterwauling. But as Freddy (a jumpy, stylized Alex Knox), who will later become infatuated with Eliza, attempts to hail a cab for his sister (a bellowing Carolyn Ratteray) and mother (a breathless and dotty Lynn Milgrim), the dominant impression is one of actors stranded in different plays on the same stage.
A projection of words raining down at the start of the production lends a nice modernizing touch, but once the words are put into the mouths of the actors, it's as though Shaw's language is speaking them. Harangues are delivered into the open air, perhaps to underscore the separation of characters, who are divided not just by class but also by gender. But there's little connection even between Higgins and his esteemed colleague Col. Pickering (an at-sea Stan Egi), whom he likes so much he invites him to move in.
Eliza's guttural screeches and the hilarious amoral bluster of her father, Alfred P. Doolittle (Time Winters) are meant to be cacophonous. But the production doesn't fully capitalize on the charm of the play's unconventional households, in which bachelors can cohabit on a whim, a housekeeper such as Mrs. Pearce (Ellen Crawford) can serve as substitute parent, and a freethinking woman such as Mrs. Higgins (Mary Anne McGarry) can be both mother and straight-talking friend to her emotionally stunted son.
White, who was so outstanding in "R II," Kubzansky's minimalist reworking of Shakespeare's "Richard II," at Boston Court in 2013, begins so stridently as a flower girl cartoon that it's hard to emotionally reinvest in this fable of transformation. It certainly doesn't help that Turk's Higgins, an arrogant tyrant of vowels and self-serving patriarchal values, edges frequently into sitcom territory. If there's an undertow of longing between them, it's so effectively repressed that Freud would have had trouble uncovering it.
It's not until the fourth act when White's Eliza, after her disappointment with the way Higgins has responded to her triumph at her garden party test run, registers as a three-dimensional character. Relinquishing the awkward comic mask, White finally gets to dabble in human colors. She soars, but there's something amiss when it takes until after intermission for her character to seem even remotely real.
Nicholas Martin directed a memorable "Pygmalion" at the Old Globe in 2013 with Robert Sean Leonard as Higgins and Charlotte Parry as Eliza. That production succeeded by staying true to the drawing room comedy idiom of the play (something that Kubzansky's actors have trouble locating) while finding currents of feeling that didn't compromise Shaw's stern intellectual vision.
Traditions are meant to be reinvented, but a revival that is more interested in creating indoor fog effects than in uniting its cast can't help but founder. McGarry's Mrs. Higgins, though a touch wan, might have served as the model for the rest of the company in balancing humor with seriousness.
Turk, an adroit actor who could use some reining in, overdoes the farcical qualities of Higgins, an enigmatic character whose Oedipally challenged psychology is under-investigated here. The tears he sheds at the end of the production are not only unearned but also contrary to Shaw's intentions, which to his everlasting credit were neither sentimental nor devoid of feeling.
A century later, the Irish playwright never at a loss for words is still light-years ahead of us.
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 12.
Tickets: $30 to $75
Contact: (626) 356-7529 or www. PasadenaPlayhouse.org