Mrs. Warren’s Profession, George Bernard Shaw’s tart and tangy play about prostitution — and more — written in 1893 and first performed in 1902, looks good for its age.
Chalk it up to director David Staller’s surefooted staging for the Gingold Theatrical Group led by Karen Ziemba as prostitute-turned-madam Kitty Warren and Nicole King as her down-to-earth daughter Vivie. Credit, too, the evergreen smarts and acerbity of Shaw, a writer with a piercing point of view who knew how to push buttons. In his story about the oldest profession he quietly goes there about morality, money, hypocrisy, families, class, and convention.
The new Off-Broadway revival runs 100 intermission-free minutes. That’s about 20 minutes shorter than previous versions I’ve seen, including a 2010 Broadway revival with Cherry Jones, Sally Hawkins, and Adam Driver mostly memorable for murky diction. Shaw’s words matter, and the latest revival talks the talk.
Staller’s take on the play, he explains in a director’s note, “leans heavily upon the 1912 version and also employs notes [Shaw] later made for a proposed screenplay.” In a shrewd move for a play whose ideas get the mind humming, this revival begins and ends inside Vivie’s head. Vivie hears voices — echoes, actually — in these brief bookends. “The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want … and if they can’t find them … they make them.”
The implications of this are wide-reaching, and circumstances loom large in the story. The plot turns on bombshell revelations, and even at an hour and 40 minutes, it takes patience for them to arrive. Stretches of the play, like the Gingold’s grayscale set and costume design, are fairly one-note and muted.
Men in the Warren women’s lives come into view in roughly the first hour. There’s Mr. Praed (Alvin Keith), who loves art; Sir George Crofts (Robert Cuccioli), Kitty’s sketchy business partner; Reverend Samuel Gardner (Ralphael Nash Thompson), whose secret history with Kitty eventually emerges; and the clergyman’s idle opportunist son Frank (a high-energy David Lee Huynh), whose romance with Vivie turns out to be too close for comfort.
An ongoing sight gag about Vivie’s finger-numbing handshake accompaniess these introductions. It’s a joke that goes practically nowhere unless it’s to hint that this confident, Cambridge-educated young woman’s resolve is just as ironclad. That becomes evident after two revelations. The first comes when Vivie, who’s been afforded every advantage by a mother she doesn’t even know, finds out that Kitty turned tricks to survive -- and to ensure her daughter’s future. Vivie is okay with that. But Vivie can’t accept that Kitty is still in the life — only as a madam with a fleet of lucrative brothels. That’s a dealbreaker, and Vivie shows her mom just how independent she can be.
In a fine-tuned cast, Huynh energizes each moment he’s in. Ziemba, a Tony Award winner for the dance-driven Contact, makes a robust and merry Mrs. W, while King lends the right notes of prickliness and steely self-possession as her daughter. Their sweet-and-sour contrast works.
The star of the show is the play itself. It no longer shocks, but it still tickles the brain. Late in the game, the world-wise Kitty harrumphs, “Lord help the world if everybody took to doing the right thing.” It was a good line in 1893, and it still is now.
Photo credit: Karen Ziemba (left) and Nicole King in Mrs. Warren's Profession. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)