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Peter O’Toole Opens in ‘Pygmalion’ on Broadway

April 27, 1987

NEW YORK (AP) _ Peter O’Toole has met the challenge and put his own, most satisfactory stamp on Henry Higgins.

O’Toole, usually a film actor, overcomes the facts that he isn’t Rex Harrison, his show isn’t a musical and the audience knows a lot of the lines as he stars in George Bernard Shaw’s ″Pygmalion,″ which opened Sunday at Broadway’s Plymouth Theater.

Amanda Plummer as Eliza Doolittle is O’Toole’s equal, or better - which would have pleased Shaw, who liked women to triumph.

The story is familiar to many through the musical ″My Fair Lady,″ which was based on ″Pygmalion″ and includes many spoken and sung lines lifted intact from the original.

But no previous ″fair ladies″ are remembered during Miss Plummer’s self- possessed portrayal. And O’Toole isn’t recreating Rex Harrison, the elegant egoist.

As the ″squashed cabbage″ selling flowers, Miss Plummer is so good that one dreads her change into refined speech. But she is splendid at every stage.

Her pinched-with-poverty face, easily twisting into an ugly expression, becomes soft like her tone of voice when she tries out her new pronunciation on Higgins’ mother.

Then her small, pointed features take on an aristocratic cast as she becomes a lady, in speech, thought and beautiful posture, her gowns emphasizing her swan neck.

O’Toole’s Higgins is single-minded, driving, heedless. He shows this most clearly around his mother (Joyce Redman), who makes him subside by treating him like a small boy intent on one goal not important to the grownups. In dress and manner he’s careless, not elegant or egotistical.

″Pygmalion″ dwells longer than ″My Fair Lady″ on some peripheral scenes which need to be brilliantly acted to sustain audience interest and amusement. The person who does best with this is Dora Bryan as Mrs. Pearce, Higgins’ housekeeper. She gives O’Toole some glances of total, unflattering understanding that rank tops in the art of the theatrical ″take.″

John Mills is a bit weaker as Alfred Doolittle, making him more reasonable in his explanations about the undeserving poor than dazzlingly eccentric. Lionel Jeffries succeeds as Colonel Pickering, Higgins’ foil, older and kindlier. Osmund Bullock did well his brief job of looking goofy and besotted as Freddy Eynsford Hill.

If O’Toole and Miss Plummer, or director Val May, have a failing, it’s making the final scene too much on one level and not punching up one sentence or two of their argument for heightened importance.

The play doesn’t have the cozy ending that the musical has. O’Toole works toward this by making Higgins not interested in women, even down in his mind’s second level. They might become interested in him but if he’s to become involved, he’s going to have to grow up.

The Shubert Organization, Jerome Minskoff and Duncan C. Weldon produced. Douglas Heap designed sets, giving Higgins a rectangular, one-story study and his mother a charming early 20th century drawing room with balcony. Terence Emery did felicitous costumes and Martin Aronstein lighting.

Happily, familiarity does not dim the impulse to enjoy and laugh at Shaw’s wit throughout ″Pygmalion.″

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Frank Rich, the New York Times critic, said the first half of the production is diverting, thanks mostly to O’Toole. The ″tall, reedy actor rules this ‘Pygmalion’ on the grounds of elegance and talent, if not always concentration,″ Rich wrote.

Miss Plummer, however, is miscast, according to Rich. ″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.″

Howard Kissel of the Daily News said Miss Plummer ″is stronger as a flower girl, much less convincing or natural when she is supposed to be mature.″ O’Toole, according to Kissel, is a ″properly abrasive″ although ″rather languid″ Higgins.

But, ″even weaknesses in the two leads cannot spoil the overall pleasure of the production,″ he wrote.

Clive Barnes of the New York Post called the show ″a sound, pleasant, and lively ’Pygmalion,‴ enhanced by Heap’s settings and Emery’s stylish costumes.

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