Saturday, April 04, 2009

On-Stage: Mrs. Warren’s Profession

Business is good for Mrs. Warren. No bailout is needed for her, but she certainly has plenty of stimulus money coming in. Her vocation happens to be the world’s oldest, enjoying boom times during the Victorian era. Despite its stormy initial reception, Mrs. Warren’s Profession has become one of George Bernard Shaw’s most popular plays, with a new production by the Boo Arts company currently running at Manhattan Theatre Source.

Mrs. Warren is now part of management, rather than labor, frequently traveling to her establishments in major European cities, like Budapest and Brussels. Through the proceeds of her business, Mrs. Warren supports her daughter, Vivie, whom she rarely sees. Though curious, Vivie remains ignorant of the nature of Mrs. Warren’s work in particular and her life in general. One summer day, Mrs. Warren surprises Vivie at country home she staying at, bringing with her two friends. Vivie genuinely likes Mr. Praed, a gentle middle-aged man with an artistic temperament, but has little use for the arrogant Sir George Crofts.

Together with Vivie’s neighbors, her prospective suitor Frank Gardner and his father, the Reverend Father Samuel Gardner, they make quite the awkward garden party, especially considering how nervous the good Rector is when recognized by Mrs. Warren. At the end of the night, Vivie and her mother have the first of two mother-daughter confrontations in Profession, in which Mrs. Warren finally reveals the truth of her vocation. How Vivie deals with that revelation, as an independent professional woman in late Victorian society, will preoccupy the rest of the play.

In Profession, Shaw skewers perceived societal norms which largely indulge the patronage of Mrs. Warren’s establishments, but rigorously prohibit the actual mention of the word prostitution. Shaw’s dialogue still retains all its bite, particularly in the hands of the impressive cast assembled in this production. Indeed, there is no weak link amongst them.

Joy Franz and Carolyn Kozlowski as Mrs. Warren and Vivie respectively, are perfectly matched as the hedonistic mother and her coolly rational daughter, whose key scenes together crackle with a palpable intensity. Yet, the rest of the ensemble never lets the energy flag. Supporting roles which might ordinarily lend themselves to stock performances have noteworthy substance here. Joseph Franchini is quite touching as Praed, conveying a welcome sense of the character’s humanity and compassion. Likewise, James Dutton brings surprising feeling and nuance to Frank Gardner, a part which could easily be dismissed as a shallow wastrel.

Effectively staged by director Kathleen O’Neil within the Source’s limited space, the Boo Arts production of Profession is completely riveting. The cast is consistently first-rate, digging into Shaw’s coldly cutting words with absolute conviction. Contemporary theater patrons who enjoy Neil LaBute’s work should take advantage of the opportunity to go back to the classics to hear the same sort of brutally frank dialogue, penned by the Victorian master. Now officially open, Profession runs at Manhattan Theatre Source through April 18th.

(Photo credit: Clint Alexander)