October 13, 2010

"Mrs. Warren's Profession" Doesn't Payoff

The last time Cherry Jones and Doug Hughes worked together, they brought John Patrick Shanley’s Tony-award winning Doubt to the stage.  I saw it twice and each time, nearly moaned out loud from the pleasure of it.

Now, Jones and Hughes are together against as the title character and director of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession (click here to listen to an interview they did on New York's public radio station WNYC). But this time, my response is more of a sigh.

I confess that I’m just not that big on Shaw. I admire Shaw’s politics, respect his dedication to the theater and celebrate his constant championing of smart, independent women.  But his plays just don’t do it for me.  They seem in many ways more of their time than Shakespeare’s or even Sophocles’ do of theirs. 

Mrs. Warren’s Profession, set in the waning days of the Victorian era, features two smart and independent women: Vivie, a young Cambridge-educated woman; and her mother Kitty, who, unbeknownst to her daughter, has earned the money for that education and Vivie’s other comforts, as the madame of brothels that serve an elite clientele on the continent. 

That profession was so scandalous when Shaw wrote the play in 1893, that nearly a decade went by before it was performed publicly in 1902. The playwright wrote a long apologia for the printed version of the play. Nowadays, of course, the subject would more likely be fodder for a TV reality show.

Jones, returning to the New York stage for the first time in four years and after her Emmy-winning turn as the first female president of the U.S. on the now-departed TV series "24," commands the stage as Mrs. Warren.  Of course, Jones, arguably the best American stage actress of her generation, would do that in just about any role she chose to play. Her Kitty Warren is unabashed about the choices she’s made and bracingly crude around the edges.

But Jones gets spotty support from the rest of the cast. Edward Hibbert strikes the right note as an Oscar Wildeish artist who is a friend of the family and Michael Siberry looks every inch the part as a hypocritical clergyman.  But British actress Sally Hawkins gives such an idiosyncratic reading of Vivie that it comes off as whiny. Mark Harelik seems too young and debonair as Mrs. Warren’s upper-class partner-in-crime. While, as my friend Jessie observed, Adam Driver, a recent graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, lacks the sexiness that might tempt the prudish Vivie. 

Many of the non-acting choices for this production seemed just as off-kilter.  And that starts with the image on its posters and Playbill.  It's a Victorian-era woman whose eyes are obscured by two giant roses. Well, Mrs. Warren, who views prostitution as the preferable option for women who are prohibited from earning money in other ways, certainly doesn’t look at the world through rose-colored glasses.  And even Vivie’s view of the world turns out to be gimlet-eyed.

The jaunty original music by David Van Tieghem seems equally off-key and more appropriate for a ‘60s sitcom than a social drama set at the turn of the 20th century. Catherine Zuber’s costumes, particularly the ones for Mrs. Warren, stuck me as overly emphatic.  And Scott Pask, a designer whose work often impresses the hell out of me, seems to be trying simultaneously too hard and not enough. 

In fact, everyone here, from Jones and Hughes on down, seems to be trying too hard.  And, as Shaw himself, said, “It's so hard to know what to do when one wishes earnestly to do right.”


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading your thoughtful comments on this production. When I read the play, I did wonder how the director might turn an editorial into a stage production.
Wonder what might have happened if someone (like for example Fritz Lowe and Alan Jay Lerner -- had decided to turn 'Mrs Warren's Profession' into a musical. What then?)
I decided I might be the one to turn Mrs W's Prof into contemporary musical, but so far, I'm not very far along on this project.

jan@broadwayandme said...

A musical. What an intriguing idea. I hope you go through it and that sometime down the road, I get a chance to hear it. In the meantime, many thanks for leaving your comment.