If you had just graduated from college and learned for the first time that your mother got her start as a prostitute and made her fortune as the owner of a string of brothels, how would you react?
If you’re Vivie Warren in the Gingold Theatrical Group’s problematic production of Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” at Theater Row through November 20th, you’re matter-of-fact to the point of indifference.
“Why did you choose that business?” Vivie (Nicole King) asks mildly. “Saving money and good management will succeed in any business.”
“But where can a woman get the money to save in any other business?” her mother (Karen Ziemba) replies. “Of course; if you have a turn for music, or the stage, or newspaper-writing: that’s different. But all [my sister] Liz or I had was our appearance and our turn for pleasing men.”
Such an attitude makes the play, which George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1893, shockingly ahead of its time, and arguably in sync with our own, given the growing current movement to decriminalize prostitution and to treat sex workers with dignity.
Yet, in the hands of the current production’s six-member cast under the direction of Gingold artistic director David Staller, the play didn’t feel timely to me; It felt out of touch, a mannered exercise in dated social commentary.
I don’t remember having this reaction when I saw the 2010 Broadway revival of the play, starring Cherry Jones as Mrs. Warren, and marking the Broadway debut of Adam Driver as Frank Gardner, a charming rake who is after Vivie for her money. But maybe that’s the point: It takes incandescent acting to make “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” work.
Now, I’ve seen five of the six actors in the current cast give splendid performances in previous shows. Karen Ziemba is a Tony winning actress with a track record of many great performances in Broadway musicals. David Lee Huynh, who portrays Frank the rake, was terrific in multiple roles in the NAATCO production of Shakespeare’s rarely produced Henry VI, especially a thrillingly sly, nasty (future) Richard III. There are no overt missteps by the five in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” but the only who gave a performance that much registers in my memory is Robert Cuccioli, another Broadway veteran, portraying the shady Sir George Crofts, Mrs. Warren’s partner in their brothel empire, who fancies himself a civilized man but whose designs on the much younger Vivie are expressed bluntly, trying to win her over by promising her he’ll inherit his money; in effect trying to buy her.
As Vivie, Nicole King, who is making her Off-Broadway debut, doesn’t have any visible reaction to her mother’s revelation. Perhaps this was meant as an expression of Vivie’s character — a well-educated, coldly practical modern woman. But it could be just as easily interpreted as the actress waiting for her next line.
Later, when Vivie discovers that her mother is still in the brothel business, even though she no longer needs the money, Vivie reacts strongly, and King’s performance becomes more animated as Vivie asserts her independence.
“Mrs. Warren’s Profession” is meant to be a comedy, but one that gets its juice from its subversion of conventional morality and of conventional theater. It is also a treatise against the limited opportunities available for women at the time, forcing them into prostitution, and the hypocrisy of what Vivie calls “fashionable morality.” With the Gingold production’s practiced British accents, quaint snug set and proper period costumes, it comes off more like a conventional drawing room comedy, without being much funny nor much drawing me in.
Mrs. Warren’s Profession
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Gingold Theatrical Group at Theatre Row through November 20
Running time: 100 minute with no intermission
Directed and adapted by David Staller
Costumes: Asa Benally
Set: Brian Prather
Lights: Jamie Roderick
Sound: Frederick Kennedy
Hair: The Wig Associates
Mrs. Kitty Warren…Karen Ziemba
Vivie Warren … Nicole King
Sir George Crofts … Robert Cuccioli
Frank Gardner … David Lee Huynh
Praed … Alvin Keith
Reverend Samuel Gardner … Raphael Nash Thompson
Understudies: Katya Collazo, Max Roll