Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
January 25, 2013
When the Haves confront the Have Nots , the disparity isn’t just about cash-on-hand or linguistic agility. It always comes down to class. And gender. And race.
Superciliousness takes center stage in a new play, and an old.
“Pygmalion” is celebrating its centennial at the Old Globe, and George Bernard Shaw’s delicious skewering of the rigid British class system is as cutting and funny as ever.
Based on a Greek myth by the same name, the play was ahead of its time, touching on women’s rights and independence. The glorious Lerner and Lowe musical, “My Fair Lady,” used much of Shaw’s luscious language, but managed to heighten the conflicts and characters.
Poor Eliza, the scruffy, cockney flower-seller, is treated like a sock-puppet by heartless phonetician Henry Higgins and the more gentlemanly Col. Pickering. When they hear her piercing working-class locutions, Higgins bets that he can pass her off as a duchess, just by changing her speech, dress and manners.
Higgins has no manners of his own, especially as played by TV and film actor Robert Sean Leonard, an unkempt, insouciant, not-so- veddy British pedant. His ever-watchful but exasperated mother, magnificently portrayed by Kandis Chappell, wisely perceives her son’s weaknesses — and Eliza’s strengths.
Don Sparks is hilarious as Eliza’s amusingly amoral father, and Paxton Whitehead is priceless as Pickering. Charlotte Parry makes a charming transformation, though her Eliza never steals our heart. But in this magnificent setting, it’s hard not to fall in love with the play and production.
The same cannot be said of “ Clybourne Park.” How this shallow trifle could have garnered the Pulitzer Prize, not to mention the 2012 Best Play Tony and Olivier Awards defies explanation. At one point in the second act, a character accuses the others of “dancing around the issue,” which is exactly what playwright Bruce Norris is doing in his superficial sitcom of a play. The issue is race. Sooner or later, the crass jokes come out, about class and gender, and disability, too.
The premise is commendable, picking up where the groundbreaking “A Raisin in the Sun” left off, following the first black family in a white Chicago neighborhood, then jumping ahead 50 years to consider the first white family moving into the same house, in what has become a rundown black neighborhood. But the meaty concerns are avoided in favor of cheap laughs, and there are more caricatures than characters here. Sam Woodhouse directs a capable cast, with snappy timing but too much yelling and not enough subtlety or subtext. With all the coarseness and focus on minutia, it’s hard to find the point or message buried within.
We’ve still got class and race and gender issues galore. But at least in this duet of plays, the old consideration trumps the new.
“ Clybourne Park” runs through February 10 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, in Horton Plaza.
“Pygmalion” continues through February 17 at The Old Globe, in Balboa Park.
©2013 PAT LAUNER