For a play that is not considered to be among George Bernard Shaw’s best, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” has enjoyed considerable notoriety and popularity. Presumably it is the 1902 play’s incendiary subject matter (certainly for its time) that keeps the play a somewhat popular item today. It seems to be popping up with even more regularity in recent years. I have a vivid memory of Dana Ivey in the titular role in an admirable production by the Irish Repertory Company in 2005. Only last summer, 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.
It may say a lot about this play, that for me it has yet to wear out its welcome, and I looked forward to seeing this current production at McCarter Theater. To make things even more interesting for me, Mrs. Warren is being played by Suzanne Bertish, who I also saw only this past summer as the famed seductress of the Nile in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C. To see Bertish go from playing a teenage vixen to calloused entrepreneur proved to be an event in itself.
If barging down the Nile and sinking (acknowledgement and apology to John Mason Brown’s infamous critique of Tallulah Bankhead) was presumably far from Bertish’s finest hour, I am prepared to say that, at the very least, she stayed afloat, as the relatively unsinkable Mrs. Warren, a woman molded by economic necessity and by her genuine passion for life.
Bertish, whose credits on both sides of the Atlantic are otherwise commendable, may not be the first actor to resort to the kind of dated theatrical flourishes, horrifying posturing, facial contortions, and grimacing that would have shocked audiences even in 1904. But it is hard to imagine that, under the artistic direction of Emily Mann, not a moment of truth or honesty is ever revealed, only indication and pretense. It is a performance enabled solely by its monumental superficiality. You could say that the final confrontation scene between Bertish and Madeleine Hutchins, who plays the self-sufficient daughter, Vivie, is the last straw. It’s as if Mann said to Bertish, “If you can’t make it real, at least make it loud.”
Whatever can be perceived as Mann’s approach is visible in Madeleine Hutchins, who plays Vivie, Mrs. Warren’s daughter, and the others, who gratifyingly seem to be having a ripping good time mixing sex with politics and a dash of religion. Let me remind you that second-rate Shaw has the ability to be first-rate theater even when the supporting players deliver the Shavian wit and insights.
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. I suspect he would be pleased with Hutchins, a talented and attractive blonde who gives a robust performance as Vivie, a lonely girl, a hardened but heartbreaking figure, set adrift in a sea of reprehensible people.
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. 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.” He has also been outfitted to the nines by costume designer Jennifer von Mayrhauser.
Most despicable was a ghoulish-looking Rocco Sisto (who played the young Uncle Junior on “The Sopranos,”) as Sir George Crofts, the “madam’s” business partner, who “could take the prize at a dog show.” Michael Izquierdo is unexpectedly winning as Frank, Vivie’s penniless, fair-weather suitor. Robin Chadwick fulfilled his assignment as Frank’s father, the “spirits loving” Rev. Gardner, who was “shoved into a church and has been making as ass of himself ever since.”
These supporting roles are all fastidiously directed by Mann to bring out the best in Shaw. The four modest settings designed by Eugene Lee, including the interior and exterior of a cottage, a rectory and a business office, evoked just enough of Haslemere in Surrey and served as functional compliments to the wondrously florid speechifying. Shaw’s play, comprised as it is of his philosophical attitudes on prostitution, incest, and the evils of capitalism, was deemed “immoral and improper in 1894 by Britain’s Lord Chamberlain. These days the only thing immoral and improper about the play is not doing it justice. Now you decide.
“Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” through Sunday, February 15, McCarter Theater’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place. $15 to $49. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.