Thursday, October 7, 2010

Unsubtle Shaw

Sally Hawkins and Cherry Jones in Mrs. Warren's Profession
(photo by Joan Marcus)

Mrs. Warren’s Profession
Written by Bernard Shaw
Directed by Doug Hughes
Starring Cherry Jones, Sally Hawkins, Adam Driver, Mark Harelik, Edward Hibbert, Michael Siberry

September 3-November 28, 2010
American Airlines Theatre, 227 42nd Street

Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Bernard Shaw’s second play (written in 1893), remains among his most popular, even though it received a mostly rude welcome when first performed because of its dispassionate perspective on the strangely symbiotic relationship between Vivie Warren, a young woman, and Kitty Warren, her mother.

It was, after all, Victorian England in which Vivie discovers that her mother’s unknown “profession” all these years has been as both prostitute and brothel manager. Vivie—raised in several boarding schools with Kitty’s wealth—is not so much shocked at her mother’s businesses as she is disappointed that exploiting others helped make her fortune.

Though not at all shocking for today’s audiences, Mrs. Warren’s Profession still has Shavian wit in abundance, notably in its two big scenes pitting mother against daughter in showdowns between liberal and conservative thinking. Shaw argues both sides brilliantly, and we’re left with the impression that both headstrong, intelligent, fiery women are correct, making the final moments among the most bittersweet in Shaw.

In Doug Hughes’ lackluster new staging, many of Shaw’s subtleties are swallowed up by making the play bigger and broader for Broadway audiences. Scott Pask’s serviceable set gives cast members lots of room to roam, rendering them ineffective at interacting with one another as Shaw wants. The performers are misdirected into overplaying; the quartet of men’s roles is played adequately by pros like Edward Hibbert and Michael Siberry, which throws Vivie and Kitty’s relationship into much duller relief than usual.

As Vivie, Sally Hawkins makes an inauspicious Broadway debut. Neither the right period fit nor the right temperament for this spirited young woman, who should be stubborn but charming, Hawkins is bulldozing and unlikeable, speaks shrilly, darts her eyes and flails about, and makes a hash of her many good lines.

Offsetting Hawkins is Cherry Jones, who towers over the rest of the cast—literally and figuratively—as Kitty. Dressed in Catherine Zuber’s finest costumes, Jones initially finds the rhythms of Shavian dialogue off-putting, which may account for her wavering accent. But she gathers steam as she goes, until the end, when she demolishes Vivie in their final confrontation. What’s supposed to be a battle of two heavyweights but is reduced here to one-sided carnage: that’s not what Shaw had in mind for his heroines.

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