The In-Person Experience: Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession
The decorative set, courtesy of Brian Prather (Off-Broadway’s Daniel’s Husband) that sits most sweetly inside the Theatre Row theatre is as pretty as a two-toned old photograph. It frames the stage with care, signifying everything that is within this production; lovely, charming, well orchestrated, but a tad artificial and forced. It feels big and expansive, but this Gingold Theatrical Group production turns out to be small and a bit clumsy to navigate, trying so valiantly hard to waltz forward into delight. Somehow, without falling or tripping over its feet, this rendering of Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession never actually finds its way to take off into the stars. Mainly because it never feels real, or very true to its accented heart, just forced and flippant, surprisingly, all at the same time or for no particular reason.
The company, a favorite of mine, has gathered together once again to unpack and deliver one of Shaw’s illustrious and provocative plays, much like it did most majestically with the glorious Heartbreak House. That wonderfully fun production, which also starred the illustrious Karen Ziemba (Broadway’s Prince of Broadway, Vineyard’s Kid Victory) and Raphael Nash Thompson (TFANA’s Pericles), radiated out an engaging and fun presence, and, as I wrote in my review back then, it was a “Glorious Humanity of the Theatrical Bomb Shelter“. Unfortunately this time around, in Shaw’s third play of sixty-five, Mrs. Warren’s Profession can’t locate that same spark, nor its connectivity, even with the fine work of lighting designer Jamie Roderick (The Duke’s Emojiland), costume designer Asa Benally (Woolly Mammoth/Folger Shakespeare’s Where We Belong), and a somewhat distracting sound design by Frederick Kennedy (LCT’s audio play The Forbidden City). The attempt, crafted out of a historic piece of playwriting and construction that constructed its characters to step beyond the typical and embrace non-conventional conventions, trips over that very thought, overdoing the dynamic, and pushing the narrative outward far beyond the emotional bonding that is needed or even required.
It is said that Shaw had no interest in examining the life of sex workers when he wrote this play, but used the topical framework of the ‘business of prostitution’ as simply a central plot point in order to examine the radical idea of a woman taking matters into her own hands and building a life of financial independence, not through the use of marriage, but one through her own business and entrepreneurial expertise. The fact that the business was prostitution was just a form of fuel that brought attention to the illuminating fire of an idea that was already monumental and modern. Directed by David Staller (Off-Broadway’s Man and Superman), Shaw’s characters try with all their heart to bring forth that dialogue, but in the end, collide with one another with an inauthentic clang, slinging the well-phrased words out as if they were all in a complete farce where the accents are meant to falter, in and out, sounding both pompous and incongruent, and with the heart of the matter, barely being seen as meaningful.
Very few of the characters in this classic ‘problem play’ find their authentic and grounded footing in this production. That is for the exception of the always spectacular Ziemba, and the halfway performance of Nicole King (Guthrie’s Steel Magnolias) playing the mother and daughter at the heart of this construct. When together, they find some understanding of this social commentary, illustrating Shaw’s belief that prostitution itself was not caused by the moral failure of these women, but by economic necessity, based solely on the “underpaying, undervaluing and overworking [of] women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together.” Without preaching to the choir, these two actors find a connection in their discourse and an understanding and honesty in the text that gives us the truth of the creation. We hear the debate played out before us, feeling for the parallels of these two similar souls as plainly as the play intended.
The rest of the cast; the strong Robert Cuccioli (Gingold’s Caesar & Cleopatra) as Sir George Crofts; the unconvincing David Lee Huynh (NAATCO’s Henry VI) as the ridiculous Frank Gardner; and the charming Alvin Keith (Huntington’s Sweat) as the over-the-top representation of Praed; do their darndest to find their way, but get muddled in the message. Shaw is said to have enjoyed taking the traditional and stereotypical elements of Victorian playwriting and subverting their clichéd characterizations by giving them the most modern of views, asking them to behave and speak in the most modern of manners. But in this flawed production, the characters almost become the modern equivalent of stereotypes, playing too high and sloppy with their accents and their mannerisms, rarely unpacking the honesty and chemistry required. Miss and Mrs. Warren, and their desired preferred Professions make complete and utter sense, especially when debated between the two. The rest just get in the way, stalling our engagement in this Shaw masterpiece, as it keeps us all at arm’s length from finding joy and enlightenment in their choice of a profession.
This limited Off-Broadway engagement at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street, between 9th and Dyer Avenues) will continue through November 20th only. Opening Night is set for Wednesday, October 27th. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday evenings at 7pm, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8pm, with matinees Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 3pm. The performance will run 100 minutes, without an intermission. Tickets for Mrs. Warren’s Profession are $69 (including theater restoration fee) and can be purchased online at https://bfany.org/theatre-row/shows/mrs-warrens-profession/, by phone at 212/714-2442, ext 2 (Monday – Sunday 12pm – 5pm), or in person at the Theatre Row Box Office Box Office two hours prior to curtain. Additional service fees will apply for online or phone orders.