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Speech Therapists: Jefferson Mays and Boyd Gaines

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Illustration by Abby Clawson Low  

Ah, the joys of starring alongside Claire Danes in her Broadway debut. It certainly helps with ticket sales. But then there is the issue of being semi-eclipsed, even when you’re Jefferson Mays (I Am My Own Wife) and Boyd Gaines (three Tonys, for Contact, The Heidi Chronicles, and She Loves Me), though neither of them seems to mind. For them, Pygmalion is just another opportunity to build upon their new friendship. Mays, who plays the pompous Henry Higgins, and Gaines, his warmer sidekick, Colonel Pickering, became friends when they co-starred in last year’s World War I drama Journey’s End. Reunited in this Shaw revival—perhaps the most anticipated drama of the season, owing to the presence of Ms. Danes—Gaines (pictured right) and Mays (left) took a moment to speak with Rebecca Milzoff.

Jefferson, you were one of the people who helped get this production going. Did you want Boyd involved right off?
Jefferson: Oh, sure—absolutely.
Boyd: Well, you say that now. I was a little worried because of the similarities to Journey’s End—also a military character.
J: But then I pointed out he’s a colonel, not a lieutenant.

You didn’t know each other before Journey’s End. Did you become friends immediately?
B: I would say within the first day of rehearsal of Journey’s End, it was, Oh. I get this guy completely.
J: Exactly. He was as obsessive-compulsive as I. We would rehearse during lunch. [Affecting grandiose voice] You and I bring a regional-theater actor’s workmanlike sensibility to Broadway!

Are you as obsessive about Pygmalion?
B: Well, I think part of the reason we both so love it is because of language and sound. Jefferson’s just loaned me the first set of—what’s the title?
J: The Teaching Company’s The History of the English Language. See, we’re nerds. It’s really like being in college together.
B: We’ve been comparing notes on all the phoneticians of the time.
J: Contemporary speech in general: Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry Irving, Daniel Jones, the phonetician upon whom Higgins is based.
B: [To Jefferson] I can hear a hint of Daniel Jones in your Higgins. Though his voice seems far too high-pitched … is it because that’s how he sounds in recordings?
J: Yes! There’s a tinniness.
B: We’re kind of on the extreme side.
J: Some people drink! Have social lives!

How do you think your friendship affects your acting onstage?
B: It makes a lot of things easier. I dropped a line last night…
J: Did I come to your rescue?
B: Jefferson basically looked over and said It’s you, and in the blink of an eye we had an entire mental conversation. In Journey’s End, I liked the night you poured the bowl of soup on my head.
J: And his next line, of course was, “What kind of soup is this, Mason?”

This time, unlike with Journey’s End, it looks like you’ll be playing to packed houses. Have you considered that?
B: It’s so interesting what seems to attract an audience and what doesn’t. They told us from the get-go it was selling well, but you think, Is it Claire, that it’s her debut? Is it the play? We know it’s not us! But it’s always welcome. Though I had affection for our teeny houses in Journey’s End.
J: The few, the proud.
B: Sometimes the fewer.

You’ve both also done musicals—do you have any preference for them over straight plays?
J: Being in a musical is such a different experience because there’s all this …music! You step into this bubble of euphoria at the beginning of the night and come out humming and floating down the sidewalk. It’s like a drug. Doing a play is like weight lifting. Well, that’s not fair—some plays are heavier than others. Shaw is closer to being a musical, all My Fair Lady jokes aside.
B: A key phrase will come up...
J: At one point I say, “I’ve grown accustomed … to her voice and appearance.” I know the audience is going, “Face! Face! Face!

And how have you found working with Claire Danes so far?
J: This is her first play—can you believe that? I’ve gotten past the point of being annoyed.
B: [Laughs] At how easy it was?

There must be a downside to having a Hollywood name involved, though.
B: Well, you see stunt casting in shows that run for a long time. Some of that’s an adventure, and some of it’s, Let’s go see if that person can actually pull it off. Mostly, the reality is that it’s hard to get people to buy tickets.
J: I’d like to see the Brady Bunch cast do Pinter’s Homecoming.

Do you want to do film?
B: Sure, I want to. I’m not very good at it. I wouldn’t be so stinky if I got to do more.
J: I think I’m the only actor in New York who hasn’t been on Law & Order or any of its derivatives.
B: I’ve done the mother ship a few times.
J: I did [try out] once, for a Latino transvestite Cher impersonator. The director said, “Is this some sort of joke?” I think someone in casting said, “Oh, he just did a German transvestite…” That’s my sad tale.

Do you have plans to act together again?
J: Our next play—I was thinking about it—I think it should be Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
B: Oh, that would be good. Alternate as George and Martha?
J: I think we’re on the cusp of becoming Grand Old Men of the Theater, if we play our cards right.

Pygmalion
At the American Airlines Theatre. In previews for an October 18 opening.


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