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"Pygmalion" to be revived

Henry Higgins with the persona of a terrible-tempered toddler.

What would Dr. Spock (the baby doctor, not the "Star Trek" icon) make of Jefferson Mays' idiosyncratic yet thoroughly effective portrait of George Bernard Shaw's phonetics expert in the Roundabout Theatre Company's entertaining revival of "Pygmalion"?

Probably give the character a stern talking to - and then applaud the actor's performance, the centerpiece of director David Grindley's strong production.

Mays' Higgins is the little boy who never grew up. A smart lad, to be sure, but one whose abundant self-absorption is matched only by his childish impatience at what he perceives is the incompetence of others.

The actor's cherubic face only amplifies the perception. But Mays has more than the look of a naughty child. He has the verbal dexterity to carry off Shaw's delightful dialogue, a trenchant examination of class, manners and the inevitable combustibility of two very headstrong people.

That brings us to the evening's other major plus - Claire Danes as a charming, most appealing Eliza Doolittle. Danes, making her Broadway debut, holds her own with the other more experienced members of the cast. She cleans up nicely, transforming herself from the Cockney flower girl into a self-aware, confident young woman whose street smarts are tempered with social grace.

The key test for any "Pygmalion" is the scene where Eliza - after being exhaustively coached by Higgins and his good friend Colonel Pickering - is presented to polite society. A spirited Danes carries off the assignment with aplomb. No wonder that young swell, Freddy Eynsford Hill, is so infatuated. So were we.

Grindley, who last season directed the Tony Award-winning revival of "Journey's End," has shrewdly surrounded his star performers with a sturdy supporting cast.

Boyd Gaines is a gentlemanly Colonel Pickering, a man vaguely embarrassed by Higgins' outbursts but loyal nonetheless to his outspoken friend. Jay O. Sanders nicely underplays Alfred Doolittle, Eliza's father, a life-loving reprobate done in by middle-class morality.

A wonderful Helen Carey exudes equal amounts of maternal understanding and exasperation as Higgins' commonsensical parent as does Brenda Wehle as Mrs. Pearce, Higgins' disapproving housekeeper.

The production looks well-heeled without appearing to be ostentatious. Designer Jonathan Fensom's settings - Higgins' pleasantly disheveled library and his mother's proper drawing room - offer nice studies in contrast. And Danes looks fetching in Fensom's costumes, particularly those for a stylish, upper-crust young lady.

Conversations in Shaw plays often take on the tempo of a tennis match - words flying back and forth with the furious energy of a high-stakes battle. The verbiage can often obscure the emotion of what lies behind all those speeches. Not so here as the play builds to a surprising, affecting and appropriate conclusion.

"Pygmalion" is not easy to revive these days. The melodies of "My Fair Lady," the Lerner and Loewe musical based on the play, haunt much of its dialogue. You can practically hear the song cues for Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. Of course, you'll leave the theater humming those tunes. But you will also remember the remarkable performances of Mays and Danes in this spirited revival.

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