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A CurtainUp Review
Mrs. Warren's Profession
By Elyse Sommer
Talky and past its ability to shock it may be, but, as Simon's Prequel (see link at end) inspired by his anticipation of seeing this revival makes clear, Broadway does seem to have a love affair with the oldest profession. And the Roundabout has fulfilled its well-earned reputation for attracting top talent for its revivals by casting the great Cherry Jones as Kitty Warren.
Happily Jones does not disappoint. Stunningly coiffed and costumed by Tom Watson and Catherine Zuber respectively, Jones is a powerhouse as the woman who rose from Eliza Doolittle-like beginnings to become the millionaire proprietress of a chain of brothels. We see her sweep into the Surrey house where her seldom seen daughter Vivie (Sally Hawkins) lives, an elegantly, self-assured grande dame — but with more than a touch of the sexy vulgarian in voice and actions. At one point she plants a not particularly motherly kiss on the lips of Vivie's neighbor and young suitor (Adam Driver).
The role doesn't allow quite the beginning-to-end bravura acting opportunity as Sister Aloysius of John Patrick Shanley's Publitzer Prize winning Doubt (also directed by Doug Hughes). However, Jones does have two triumphant scenes with the daughter she hardly knows in which she digs deep into the pain underneath the tough veneer. In the first scene she opens herself up to the young woman for whom she provided everything fate denied her, quietly detailing her climb up the promiscuous ladder. The final confrontation comes when Vivie has learned that her mother's involvement in the oldest profession is not past history, and refuses to have anything to do with her or her money. That rejection has Jones explode into a seething cauldron of rage and despair. Her angry outburst culminates in this bitter outcry: "Oh, if only I had my life to live over again!" Her fury spent, she recovers her dignity and rejects Vivie's proffered conciliatory hand with a contemptuous "No thank you!"
While Mrs. Warren is the title character, this is as much daughter Vivie's story as hers. Even more so when you consider that the plot relies on how growing up as she did shaped her, and how she reacts to the truth and nothing but the truth about her mother. That means, the actress playing Vivie must also be powerful.
I wish I could say that Vivie as played by Sally Hawkins, who's best known to American audiences for her Golden Globe winning role in Mike Leigh's film Happy-Go Lucky, were a worthy partner for Ms. Jones. Unfortunately Doug Hughes has not elicted a performance from Sally Hawkins to make her Broadway debut a triumph. She has her moments but ultimate fails to make Vivie rounded enough to be both a businesslike modern woman and yet not without grace and charm. The big final blow-up with her mother fails to convey enough of what what it's costing her to hold on to her rigid moral convictions. Worst of all, she delivers her dialogue shrilly and not very clearly.
Since Shaw often created his secondary characters as mouthpieces for his attacks on the social ills under his scrutiny, the male characters orbiting around Kitty and Vivie Warren also need to be excellent to come across as believable human beings — and so they are at the American Airlines stage. Adam Driver, while no showboat physically, is convincing as the pragmatic playboy son of another man in Kitty Warren's man-filled past, the Reverend Samuel Gardner. Michael Silberry plays the Reverend with appropriately inept drollness.
The standouts in the support cast are Edward Hibbert, Kitty's long time architect friend (a rare male friend who's not also been more than that), and Mark Harelik as Sir George Croft. In his introductory notes Shaw, tongue obviously planted in cheek, declared himself a fool not to have made this sentimental artist a theater critic. However, even as a critic and as played by Hibbert, Praed would be true to his thoroughly endearing self. Harelik is perfect as the oily partner in Mrs. Warren's profitable enterprise and currently eager to settle down with her daughter. The proposal scene that shows him at his most deliciously loathsome is one of this production's highlight,
Besides attracting stellar thespians, the Roundabout is also known for its handsome stagecraft and there's not even a whiff of budget in Scott Pask's three sets: two lush garden scenes, one fronting the Warren House, the other the Gardner rectory. . . a wood panelled parlor for the Warren home. . . and a law office with three tall windows where Vivie, having rejected the ill-gotten gains that have supported her education and comfortable life style, ends up making her own way. Every one of these scenes is handsome and atmospheric and of the several productions of this play I've seen in the last three years, this is certainly the most lavish. But, since Mr. Hughes, has followed the current practice of conflating 3 and 4-act plays to have just one break, he's dealt with the scenery changes by bringing down the curtain for two pauses. No brief Beckettian or Pinteresque pauses these, but somewhat interminable interludes that make the price audiences pay for all these sets as high as that paid by Vivie for her unyielding moral stance.
Except for bringing the superb Cherry Jones back to the Rounadabout (She previously did Shaw's Major Barbara for the company) Doug Hughes' production of Mrs. Warren's Profession is sturdy and handsome, but in no way new and revelatory. The Irish Rep's production in 2005 was also without any cutting edge twists, but it did have the essential ingredient — a Vivie whose performance was on a par with that of the title character. A production which did add a very astute fresh twist was Anders Cato's 2007 revival for Berkshire Theater Festival which he presented with the original two intermissions. He had his prop movers dressed in late 19th Century dresses and watching them move around the darkened stage evoked a clear image of women like the young Kitty Warren who harnessed to menial jobs which brilliantly underscored Shaw's protest about the sort of working conditions that propelled Kitty into the oldest profession.
There is one rather unusual element in this production. It's nothing in the play itself but comes courtesy of designer Scott Pask's concept for the curtain which the audience gets plenty of opportunity to stare at during those lengthy pauses. Unlike the Victorian settings, that curtain has a very contemporary look, imprinted as it is with a painting inspired by a textile design. That design's creator was Duncan Grant, who, with Vanessa Bell, was a key member of the Bloomsbury Group, an artistic community of men and women, all like minded artists, designers and writers contemporary to the period in England in which Shaw's play unfolds. At the Roundabout's blog (http://www.myroundaboutblog.com/?cat=209), Mr. Pask suggests that this drop's imagery "can also resonate with reference to Vivie's struggle to find herself, and understand her mother, and chart her course to becoming a modern woman". An interesting connection that's nice to look at but somehow lacks the intended relevance. Perhaps more members of the audience would be likely to appreciate it and reflect on it, if Pask's design vision were explained in a program note or or as a program insert.
Curtainup's Shaw Backrounder
Broadway's Love Affair With the Oldest Profession.