"I had to report to this, what do you call it — a panel — where the judge asked me what I did for a living. I said I wanted to be an actor. He asked what I'd been in. I said, well, I was in Shaw's Saint Joan up at the university. What had I played in it, he asked. I said, Peter Cauchon, the bishop of Beauvais, who tries to reason with Joan, giving her every chance to get off. 'But then,' I said, 'he burnt her at the stake' . . . and the judge asked me to leave the room."
The low-key narrative is typical of the fine-tuned Jefferson Mays who so effectively underplayed his every word and action as Mason, the British officers' cook, in the trenches of R.C. Sherriff's Journey's End, yet could be as flamboyant as all hell (and walk off with a Tony) as that amoral old transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf — not to mention 35 other characters — in Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife.
The only other Shavian role previously inhabited by Mays was Gunner, the pre-Islamic suicide bomber in a Long Wharf production of Misalliance. But now he is starring in the Roundabout Theatre Company's Pygmalion at the American Airlines Theatre (previews begin Sept. 21 for an Oct. 18 opening) as Shaw's intellectually commanding male chauvinist pig supreme, the much adored, much deplored Henry Higgins, professor of phonetics — in the theatrical footsteps of no less than Rex Harrison, Leslie Howard and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Mays has one leg up on Sir Herbert. He's a youthful 40, give or take a year or two. Beerbohm Tree was 61 when on April 11, 1914, Pygmalion opened at Her Majesty's Theater, and Mrs. Patrick Campbell — she for whom "Joey the Clown" (her endearment for Shaw) wrote the play and the gorgeous part of Eliza Doolittle, curbstone flower girl of Covent Garden — was a tender 49. Mays can remember seeing Gabriel Pascal's superb 1938 film of "Pygmalion" (Leslie Howard as Higgins, Wendy Hiller as Eliza, Wilfrid Lawson as Alfred Doolittle), but guess what: He's never witnessed My Fair Lady on stage or screen. "But I feel as if I have seen it, it's so ingrained — the way you feel about Freud."
Holding thumb and forefinger a quarter-inch apart, the actor expresses amazement as to how Alan Jay Lerner could, for instance, extrapolate the entire witty, double-edged lyric of "Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?" from no more than a couple of lines by Shaw. Opens his hand. "Well, we're not going to be doing that, but you say some of this play's lines and expect the music to swell up behind you."
Mays has in the past made reference to his dyslexia, which he prefers to speak of as "a reading disability," but now adds that it makes learning lines "a terrible job of Sturm und Drang, tearing of hair, a painfully slow process" which was about to start for him once again, three days from when we were now talking.
"However, Shaw is one of the easiest people to learn. His writing is so balanced — like Shakespeare's. Everything but the poetic meter. And I think this play's my favorite Shaw. So lean, so economical, so active. Not much moralizing in this one. On the other hand, Bernard Shaw was the biggest hypocrite in the world. Well, I shouldn't say that. I should say he contained multitudes. 'Do I contradict myself?'" Mays tosses in, from Whitman. "But Shaw was rather a shameless self-promoter. His whole life was a series of beaux gestes. When he won the Nobel Prize, he took the prize and left the money."
Mays, who is a formidable reader — for Journey's End he devoured book after book about World War I — has now been immersing himself in Michael Holroyd's biography of Shaw ("magnificent") and Juliet Nicholson's "The Perfect Summer: England 1911" plus CDs on "The History of the English Language" plus a 19th-century etiquette book, because "to understand rudeness [Henry Higgins being the epitome of rudeness] you have to know correct behavior; where to put your stick and your hat when you enter a room, for instance."
Which leads us back to Henry Higgins.
"He behaves extremely badly" — toward Eliza, the "crushed cabbage leaf" he has lifted out of the gutter and taught to speak the Queen's English, but also toward everyone else impartially. "He's a real bastard, but," says Mays, "I don't think he's an evil person. He's an overgrown English schoolboy, he and Colonel Pickering both. They've built this ideal female robot in the garage. The play could end with the ambassador's party" — unseen in the play and high point of the musical, where Higgins will win his bet of passing Eliza off as a duchess — "but no, there are two more acts to deal with the consequences."
Mr. Mays, do you see Pygmalion as Shaw the overgrown schoolboy's own confession of guilt? "Sure." Two beats. "But I guess you could argue that all plays are a confession of guilt one way or another."
A memorable moment in Eliza Doolittle's coming of age is when she throws Henry Higgins's slippers in his face. When Mays finished the 18-month world tour of I Am My Own Wife, he and his wife, Susan Lyons, stood side by side "in Albury-Wodonga, this little town in the middle of nowhere in Australia" as he heaved Charlotte von Mahlsdorf's pearls — goodbye forever — into the Murray River. Maybe the day will come, at the end of another good run, when Jefferson Mays will hurl Henry Higgins's slippers straight across 42nd Street into Madame Tussauds.