While Shaw's politics might be easily spotted on the sleeves of his leading ladies, the eventual clash between mother and daughter sets off theatrical sparks with exciting immediacy. Mrs. Warren's Profession may no longer shock, but Hawkins, Jones and Hughes still provide plenty of electricity.
MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION Broadway Reviews
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A new revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company, then, comes as a happy surprise. Helmed by Doug Hughes and starring Cherry Jones and Sally Hawkins, the work is made urgent and subversive.
I've seen Uta Hagen and Dana Ivey do excellent work in the title role. Jones equals them, though hers is a much different Mrs. Warren. As Shaw requests in his stage directions, the character affects an upper-class accent and manner unless she is disturbed, when she reverts to lower-class speech. Jones instead creates a fascinating accent, more upper-class than not, that places the character solidly outside of polite society while still allowing her to function within it. Jones is also a much more sensual woman than is traditional. She looks smashing in Catherine Zuber's rich costumes, color-coded to Mrs. Warren's mood, and you can easily envision her as the center of attention in an elegant whorehouse. She also brings a broad emotional range to the part, with the intensity of her love and need for her daughter particularly compelling.
The delightful surprise of the generally less-than-delightful "Mrs. Warren's Profession," which opened on Sunday night at the American Airlines Theater, is that Cherry Jones, in the title role, does not nearly glow. She glitters.
Cherry Jones, on the other hand, makes a full meal of a role for which she is perfectly suited. Jones is deliciously sensual and arch in a series of gaudy outfits, and her second-act speeches about pulling herself out of poverty are utterly spellbinding (a wobbly accent notwithstanding). Debonair Mark Harelik does sturdy work as Warren’s bullish business partner, Crofts, and Adam Driver is amusingly oleaginous as Vivie’s charming but morally flaccid lover, Frank. With grand sets and Doug Hughes’s smart, careful staging, so much goes right here. The only thing lacking is Vivie’s ruthlessness.
The company tendency for overproduction gives the show a stiffness that impedes Shaw's fluidly flowing thoughts on the ways that our culture allows (and disallows) women to sell themselves in the social marketplace. Exteriors look unnatural, interiors feel too formal, and there are entirely too many chairs around for characters who are too stimulated by their own racing thoughts to be sitting down so much.
When mother and daughter must ultimately test each other’s moral mettle, we find that these two are not only from different worlds but also from slightly different productions: Two vivid, idiosyncratic performances collide here, dampening each other into gray noise. Even as great geysers of Acting were expended, I can't say I felt a single human emotion roll over me, beyond a high indistinct agitation. Both look incredibly relieved when they get to turn away from each other and disappear into some vast Shavian speech. Yes, Kitty and Vivie are each other’s nemeses, but we should feel their kinship as much as their existential incongruity. That piquant dissonance never materializes. Lost in themselves, and mewed in by Pask’s maze, Jones and Hawkins never find each other, not even long enough to land a punch. Under the tears and the histrionics, they seem to mean nothing to each other. Thus, we’re treated to the tidy geometric outline of Shaw's social critique, but without the stochastic human fierceness of his dramatic art. And that feels like a bit of a hedge, doesn’t it?
Mrs. Warren's Profession moves at a pretty quick clip, and Jones maintains a commanding and grand presence on stage. But overall, a little nipping and tucking - better blocked scenes, some trims of long-winded passages, warmer sets - would have made this show's oftentimes arduous work a lot more appealing.
There are still thrilling bolts of recognition to be found in this Broadway rarity, even if the Roundabout Theatre Company's adequate production, starring Cherry Jones, is less wonderful than it needs to be. In other words, for starters, it is hard to understand Shaw's wicked and all-important words in this theater, which, for all its comfort and good looks, has a way of smearing articulation (phony British and the real thing), as well as swallowing up the energy of good directors.
Riveting in her crucial monologues, Jones turns wonderfully intense as Mrs. Warren describes her early options as a woman and why she pursued such a career. While Jones' portrayal tends to be a broad one, she proves to be highly entertaining, true both to the raffish character and her period and gives this disappointing show some much-needed vitality.
But the leads seem miscast. Ms. Jones—the doubting nun of Doubt, the (usually) steadfast and admirable President Allison Taylor of 24—is so commanding in her role, and Ms. Hawkins so mousily virtuous, that Shaw's intended relationship between the two characters seems almost inverted. Mrs. Warren should represent the stifling past for British women; Vivie should represent the rationalized future. Instead, Vivie seems a scold and Mrs. Warren the charismatic, modern realist.
The Roundabout Theater's new production of Shaw's notorious early play, about a daughter who discovers that her upbringing has been financed by her mother's business of ill repute, is not terrible, just uninvolving.
Instead, Mrs. Warren and her daughter, Vivie, are respectively reintroduced as a blowzy old biddy and a neurotic, sniveling girl. That's especially disappointing, since the title character is played by no less reliable or resourceful an actress than Cherry Jones. Having excelled as a number of robustly human heroines (among them Shaw's Major Barbara), Jones would seem ideally cast as an Englishwoman who escapes poverty through prostitution, then exploits Victorian hypocrisy by making a fortune running high-end brothels.
Even Jones suffers some directorial hindrances, like having to make her first entrance in a dress that virtually announces her profession. But she holds firm, sailing through the piece with spirit, playing discreetly past the eccentric limitations Hughes has imposed on everyone else. Mrs. Warren is not a refined lady. Shaw's choice for the role, in 1902, was the low-comedy star Fanny Brough; in the mid-'30s, Paramount approached him about buying the film rights for Mae West. Jones, hand on hip, sauntering good-humoredly through a rectory garden, suggests a West character with unexpected emotional depth; when she unpacks her bitter past to Vivie, a dark fierceness spills over the saucy surface. She makes every familiar moment in the role seem fresh. However misguided the surrounding performances, we can be grateful that Mrs. Warren has gained a new Cherry.
Jones, awkwardly sporting a working-class cockney accent, tries to bring a rough edge to the steely title character. It is an unfocused and excessive performance, however, that undermines the credibility of the character.
With its sharp and witty observations about sex and class, freedom and oppression, and mothers and daughters, there's plenty to recommend in George Bernard Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Profession." As for the Roundabout's revival of the 1893 play directed by Doug Hughes, not quite so much -- despite catnip casting of Cherry Jones in the title role of Kitty Warren. She's the low-born enterpriser who uses prostitution to ensure her Cambridge-educated daughter, Vivie, independence in late Victorian England.
Doug Hughes, a talented director, given his two leads, was unable to create the right atmosphere of decorum punctured by the one’s laissez faire and the other’s rebellion needed for the proper dramatic momentum. Contributing to this failure are the good Catherine Zuber’s uncharacteristically unbecoming costumes, the gifted David Van Tieghem’s inappropriate music, and Tom Watson’s unfortunate hair and wig design, which, for example, makes Mrs. Warren look rather like Sweeney Todd’s Mrs. Lovett.
But despite their efforts, the production never catches fire, a result not only of the play's datedness -- it's not one of the playwright's best -- but also the general stodginess around them. Although the director has assembled a decent supporting cast, including Mark Harelik as Mrs. Warren's pragmatic business partner and Adam Driver as the young man who admits to romantically pursuing Vivie basically for her money, the proceedings lack the emotional and moral charge that Shaw intended.
So what went wrong? Pretty much everything, though by far the worst offender is Ms. Hawkins, a British film and TV actor of some note whose performance as Vivie couldn't be further off the mark. Shaw's stage directions describe Vivie as the quintessential example of "the sensible, able, highly-educated young middle-class Englishwoman ... strong, confident, self-possessed." For Ms. Hawkins to play her as a squeaky, flighty semitomboy is thus nonsensical, and the fact that she swallows at least half of her lines renders large chunks of the play all but unintelligible.
This Roundabout revival of George Bernard Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Profession" is agonizingly static and slow, with a tone that navigates a narrow range between flat and distinctly off. Nobody seems to know how to handle the play's wicked balance of anger and comedy.