George Bernard Shaw’s play “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” is having a renewed popularity. Under the direction of Doug Hughes, an otherwise perfunctory production by the Roundabout Theater is made exceptional by the presence of the glorious Cherry Jones, as the industrious/entrepreneurial madam. Jones, who was lauded for playing Sister Aloysius in John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Doubt” (also directed by Hughes), is delivering another bravura performance, one that puts an illuminating and formidably new imprint on Shaw’s infamous character.
Since its first appearance in 1902, the incendiary (certainly in its time) subject matter has virtually insured this play a prominent place in the Shaw canon. It seems to be popping up everywhere these days: Dana Ivey played the title role in an admirable production by the Irish Repertory Company in 2005, and the summer before last I was fortunate to see a splendid production starring Mary Haney as a deliciously crusty Mrs. Kitty Warren at the Shaw Festival in Ontario, Canada. Only last season, Suzanne Bertish played her at McCarter Theater.
Now we have the opportunity to see the way that the multi-award-winning Jones invests an astonishing amount of uncompromised grit and earthy honesty into her portrayal of this passionate woman molded by economic necessity. Director Hughes does well by Jones as does costume designer with three breathtaking outfits. Jones stakes a claim for dominance that is not even remotely challenged by British actress Sally Hawkins who is playing the very important, barely secondary role of Vivie, Mrs. Warren’s self-sufficient daughter.
Hawkins, who is making her Broadway debut, is not only too shrill with her mostly unintelligible speech that pierces the air like a fingernail descending a blackboard, but is also hampered by an acting style that would have been unacceptable in 1904. Some lessons in properly using her diaphragm when speaking would certainly help her case as the lonely, hardened but heartbreaking figure. Can we blame Hughes for this casting faux pas? You bet.
Therefore we are caught in a dilemma whether or not to weather the otherwise blistering and invigorating confrontations between mother and daughter. The answer is yes in as much as the others in the company seem to be having a reasonably good old time expressing their various attitudes about sex, politics, and religion for our benefit. Shaw’s wit and brilliant insights are hardly diminished by one seriously disappointing performance.
The author, who lived just short of a century, was a mere lad of 38 when he shocked the late Victorians and Americans with his talky and melodramatic diatribe on the prevalent social ills. It’s hard to complain about Shaw’s long-winded speeches when there are actors about who are able to bring out the most essential human qualities in their rather odious characters.
Most amusing is Edward Hibbert, who, as Mr. Praed, an effete, opportunistic architect, gives every indication with every entrance that he believes himself to be the play’s most provocative protagonist. I am prompted to repeat what I said about Hibbert when he played the same role under Emily Mann’s direction at McCarter: There is something to be said for stealing scenes when so much is at stake. Audiences may recognize Hibbert from his many Broadway performances (“Curtains,” “The Drowsy Chaperone,” and “Noises Off”) or his recurring role as Gil Chesterton, the food critic, on “Frasier.”
Most despicable and smarmy enough is Mark Harelik as Sir George Crofts, the “madam’s” business partner, who “could take the prize at a dog show.” Although he is younger, Adam Driver certainly won’t either get a prize as the best looking pup in the kennel as Frank, Vivie’s penniless, fair-weather suitor. Michael Silberry comported himself well as Frank’s father, the “spirits loving” Rev. Gardner, who was “shoved into a church and has been making an ass of himself ever since.”
The four nicely considered settings designed by Scott Pask, including the interior and exterior of a cottage, a rectory, and a business office, provide the necessary surroundings for the wondrously florid speechifying. It is the front scrim, however, that is the most curious and interesting aspect of the production in that it represents an abstract design based on the original creation by Duncan Grant, who was part of the famed Bloomsbury Group of artists popular at the time. That it only nominally makes a point to what transpires on the stage is a bit puzzling.
There is nothing, however, puzzling about Shaw’s play, comprising as it is of his philosophical attitudes on prostitution, incest, and the evils of capitalism. That it was also deemed “immoral and improper” in 1894 by Britain’s Lord Chamberlain makes it all the more relevant than the vague inference in the scrim. **
“Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” through Sunday, November 28, Roundabout Theater at the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street. $67 to $127. 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org.