Mrs. Warren’s Profession Review: Sex for Sale, Hypocrisy Required
Nobody utters the word “prostitution” or even “madam” in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” a play by George Bernard Shaw that was nevertheless scandalous enough for the police to shut it down after only one performance when it debuted on Broadway in 1905.
Its sixth production on Broadway has now opened at the American Airlines Theater, a competent if unexciting revival starring the ever-irresistible Cherry Jones, which is worthwhile especially for those who have never seen the play before. If the circumspect language and elegant costumes peg it as a period piece, such recent scandals as the battle over Craiglist’s adult services listings and the resignation of the governor of New York, should make it clear that society is still easily shocked by the world’s oldest profession, and still doesn’t know what to do about it.
When the curtain rises, Mrs. Warren’s daughter Vivie (Sally Hawkins), a recent honors graduate of Cambridge at a time when few women were educated at all, is about to spend time with a mother she barely knows; she was raised in England by governesses and at boarding school while her mother attended to her business affairs on the continent. It is only during the course of the play that she learns what that business is.
Shaw called “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” one of his three “unpleasant” plays, written early in his career as a dramatist (he was 37 when he wrote it, and had completed 60 by the time he died at the age of 94). It was meant to awaken theatergoers to the economic origins of prostitution and the inherent evils of capitalism, as well as to the unjust status of women. More generally, his unpleasant plays, with their embedded arguments, were intended to persuade an audience to bring “its conscience and its brains to the theatre,” Shaw wrote, “instead of leaving them at home with its prayer-book as it does at present.”
For those unacquainted with the play, though, the biggest surprise of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” is that the subject is not all that is unpleasant; so too are all six of the characters – Vivie’s beau Frank Gardner (Adam Driver), Frank’s father, the Rev. Frank Gardner (Michael Siberry), Mrs. Warren’s friend Sir George Crofts (Mark Harelik), even the seemingly innocuous, culture-loving architect Mr. Praed (Edward Hibbert)…and both mother and daughter. Much of the thrust of the not-quite-plausible drama is in the revelations that expose each one as hypocrite, intentional ignoramus, and/or – what seems worst of all — “practical.” It is Shaw’s comment on the system rather than on most of these individuals that the most practical course of action in society is at best amoral; society forces the moral to be cruel.
Their repellent aspects put an extra burden on the actors, especially Vivie, who has the largest and most difficult role. British actress Sally Hawkins, who is making her Broadway debut, is fine during those moments when the sensible young businesswoman is shaking hands like a man, dismissing cultural activities as boring, and responding to most events with a hard-headedness that is supposed to run in the family. Her reaction to certain upsetting revelations, however, is more shrill than seems in character, and so emotionally uncontrolled that Shaw’s words are frequently garbled.
Doug Hughes, the Roundabout Theater Company’s resident director, has put together a production that has two main draws – Scott Pask’s sumptuous sets (gardens, cottage interiors, and an office; no brothels), and Cherry Jones’ acting.
If not the best performance she has ever done, those who saw Cherry Jones as the severe nun in “Doubt” will have no doubt when they see her now as the rich tart — in brightly colored gowns; red hair; red, red lips; Cockney accent, and a vulgar manner that shades from vulnerable to vicious – that they are watching an actress at the pinnacle of her profession. It is bracing to realize that the stage, as Mrs. Warren points out in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”, was one of very few professions open to women, besides her own, at the time that Shaw wrote his play in 1883 — nearly half a century, incredibly, before British women got the right to vote.
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Mrs. Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw
at Roundabout Theater Company’s American Airlines Theater (227 West 42nd Street)
Directed by Doug Hughes
Sets by Scott Pask, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lights by Kenneth Posner, sound by David Van Tieghem
Cast: Cherry Jones, Sally Hawkins, Adam Driver, Mark Harelik, Edward Hibbert, Michael Siberry
Running time: 2 and a half hours, including 15 minute intermission
Tickets: $67 to $117. General rush: $22.
Scheduled to run through November 28, 2010
BUY TICKETS TO MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION
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