When George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession was first performed in 1905, it closed almost immediately. The subject that dared not speak its name is prostitution. And while Shaw skewers the inequities of capitalism and sex at the American Airlines Theater, the play isn't the strongest in his canon.
The drama opens in the gardens of an English country home. Cherry Jones is commanding as Mrs. Warren, the rags-to-riches brothel owner, visiting her daughter Vivie (Sally Hawkins), a young Cambridge graduate. Vivie has led a sheltered, but affluent life; her mother's aim is to make her respectable.
Like many titans of industry, Mrs. Warren is resolute and matter-of-fact, exuding a rough charm. Daughter Vivie is the century's New Woman; career-oriented but proudly unsentimental -- understandably. She barely knows her mother, who spends most of her time abroad, and no knowledge of her father.
Tensions ensue when Mrs. Warren, who has always been secretive about her business, reveals the truth to her daughter. Those moments are among the most heartfelt; Shaw rails against the horrors of factory life and the limited options for women. Mrs. Warren, rejecting poverty, discovers a lucrative business and doesn't apologize for it. (Prostitution was a thriving business in Victorian London.) Moreover, and here's the meaty bit, she makes no distinction between prostitution and marriage -- in either case, women are dependent on men for their economic survival. "Women have to pretend to feel a great deal that they don't feel," she explains.
Vivie, coping with Frank, a penniless, perpetually adolescent suitor (Adam Driver) and the attentions of Sir George Crofts (Mark Harelik), her mother's business partner, isn't convinced -- though the trophy wives in the audience would probably agree. Frank's rake-turned-clergyman father (Michael Siberry) and Warren's warm, art-loving friend Mr. Praed (Edward Hibbert) round out the cast.
The best scenes are between Vivie and Mrs. Warren; they give voice to the conflicting aims of parents, the rebellion of children and the hypocrisy of a world that favors wealth and power without questioning its genesis. As Crofts points out, the rich who casually exploit the poor, underwrite the fellowships at Cambridge. Philanthropy has long been the province of the wealthy, often, notes Shaw, to cleanse their sins.
The show moves at a fairly crisp pace, but it leaves one quietly dissatisfied. Driver's performance is somewhat forced, though the rest are solid. Mrs. Warren's Profession may not appear scandalous today, but the unrepentant businessmen watching should squirm in recognition.
Another British import, Michael Frayn's Alphabetical Order, now at the Harold Clurman Theater, is strictly comedic. Set in the library of a provincial newspaper in 1974 England, it feels more like an extended one-act. The library, run by the sweet-natured Lucy (Angela Reed), is a chaotic mess, thanks to Nathan Heverin's excellent set. Every day, a collection of newspaper types troop in: Arnold (Brad Bellamy), the grunting curmudgeon, Nora, (Margaret Daly) the busybody features editor, John (William Connell), the glib editorial writer, and jokey Wally (Paul Molnar).
The lives and loves of this crew play out against a larger crisis: Can the newspaper financially survive? Into this melee comes 25-year-old Lesley (Audrey Lynn Weston), a dour-faced young woman with an amazing gift for organization. Will she be the catalyst to transform their messy lives? Lucy hopes so -- though Lesley, like a no-nonsense nanny, delivers in unexpected ways.
This is an early, slight Frayn play, but it has seeds of the later, frenetic Noises Off. The problem is, despite good performances all round, we aren't overly engaged with the characters or quite sure the point Frayn is trying to make.
By contrast, The Most Ridiculous Thing You Ever Hoid at Urban Stages is an homage to the Marx Bros.' 1932 radio series Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel. The musical is fast-paced and funny. Groucho and Chico take on the roles of shady lawyer Flywheel (Erik Liberman) and shifty assistant Ravelli (Jared Miller), respectively.
Ridiculous Thing has recreated the Thirties studio, right down to the costumes and commercials. The jaunty score is filled with lively period-style music and puns. "Babes in Baghdad" and "Oy-ull!" are standouts. Like any Marx Bros. movie, it's got the society matron Mrs. Van Regal (Liliane Klein), the pretty daughter Kitty (Ashley Fox Linton) and a hardworking cast that belt out its numbers with glee. Jonathan Randell Silver deserves a shout-out as Harpo, as does Donald Brenner's zippy direction.
Admittedly, the Marx Bros. are tough to emulate; Liberman needs to sharpen his moves, but the show's general tone is right. This nostalgic nod to the late greats is lightweight, but adorable.
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