Mrs. Warren's (Non)Provocation

10/07/2010 4:00 AM |

Mrs. Warren's Profession

By George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Doug Hughes

Whores are people, too—at least, that's the main point of G.B. Shaw's would-be scandalous hundred-year-old play, Mrs. Warren's Profession, now in an aged-unwell revival at the American Airlines Theater. Director Doug Hughes sets an antic pace, keeping a could-be slog moving at a sitcom's clip, smoothing over Shaw's stylistic shifts with broad humor and a steady stream of character exits and entrances. (In the Playbill, the show's star admits she once walked out of a different production because it was so dull.) Within one act, the playwright moves from screwball-farce to comic drama (competing suitors trading drily witty English insults) to political polemic (England's a country of crooked brothel-keepers) to melodrama (secret half-siblings' relations, revealed!).

But Shaw's preferred mode is the political polemic, delivered by knotty, ambiguously sympathetic, sometimes contradictory characters, often more mouthpieces than men. Or, rather, women. Vivie, played here by Happy-Go-Lucky's Sally Hawkins in her fine Broadway debut, is a vicious and vulnerable young lady of science, interested in money, whisky and cigars but still with a conservative bent: she is indignant when she discovers the truth about her mother's occupation—entrepreneurial prostitution, for which the title serves as euphemism.

Mrs. Kitty Warren is played by Cherry Jones, who enters the stage done up like a peacock, showing from where her estranged daughter inherited her style of cocksure strut; she's a strict and sassy den mother, a Madam, evoking Mame with her stage-commanding Lansburian airs. Jones has been absent from the stage for fifty months, since her nerve-rattling turn in The Faith Healer, as she portrayed the president on television's 24—an absence that has been felt acutely. Jones is to Broadway what Meryl Streep is to the movies; it's no coincidence that they both took the lead in Doubt. The lust with which Jones spits the throwaway line, "he's out to have a pipe," is perhaps the most shocking, titillating moment of the evening.

And that's in an evening packed with moments meant to surprise and excite, the least of which are Shaw's casually caustic mockeries of the clergy. Mrs. Warren is outrageously appealing—she has the gall to call wholesome marriage a legitimatized version of the profession!—then alienating; Shaw gets us on her side before he turns the tables. In Act II (of IV), she offers a sympathetic, Dickensian account of how she became a courtesan, how selling sex beat slowly poisoning oneself in the factories, as the women in her family before her had done. She's, get this, a prostitute not sent from Hell. Shaw intended to rattle bourgeois audiences; when the play debuted in New York in 1905, with a house at capacity and thousands turned away, police shut it down and arrested the whole cast. (Charges were later dropped.) And the text is sharp, eloquently phrased, convincing. But, a hundred years later, it feels irrelevant, so accustomed have we become to the Hooker with the Heart of Gold, to the idea that we arrest the pimps and johns over the ladies of the night.

More compelling, then, is the play's very end, in which the conflict between Vivie and her mother is recast: instead of a petty friction over clashing standards of decency, Shaw sheds the facile shocks for something more grittily political. Mrs. Warren comes to represent someone who worked hard to make a better life materially for herself and her family, while Vivian becomes someone working hard to find meaning in life, to make the world a better place. Shaw comes to define her mother's villainy not by her profession but by her selfishness. And, unfortunately, that's a moral that feels downright modern.

(photo credit: Joan Marcus)