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Theatre in Review: Mrs. Warren's Profession (Gingold Theatrical Group/Theatre Row)

Nicole King (foreground) and Karen Ziemba. Photo: Carol Rosegg

David Staller's new production of George Bernard Shaw's dramatic provocation quite properly pairs a beloved pro with an impressive new face, and both make for excellent company. The pro is Karen Ziemba as the title character, a wealthy, yet enigmatic, woman of a certain age, trailing a retinue of men to whom she is mysteriously connected. Sensibly dressed despite her vast financial reserves, gifted with eyes both sparkling and skeptical, brandishing a disarming smile that is her first line of defense, she is affable to all and unknowable to those outside her inner circle. She is also marked by a slight strain of coarseness, a hint of the disreputable that is hard to explain away. "I am wicked," she says with satisfaction, cooling herself off with a hand fan, having just kissed a young man half her age for the hell of it. And who will argue with her?

As it happens, Mrs. Warren's profession is the kind that nice people don't talk about, especially not in the years when Edward VII occupied the British throne. Explaining her lucrative career to the blindsided daughter she raised from a distance, Mrs. Warren explains that she and her sister embraced prostitution not just to escape poverty, but because it was the best way of managing what you might call their capital assets: "Do you think we were such fools as to let other people trade in our good looks by employing us as shopgirls, or barmaids, or waitresses, when we could trade in them ourselves and get all the profits instead of starvation wages? Not likely."

Unlike most dramatists of the era, who sensationalized the lives of such women, Shaw takes a much more astringent line, having Mrs. Warren insist that such work amounts to a necessary form of drudgery. A woman in the life "has to bear with disagreeables and take the rough with the smooth, just like a nurse in a hospital or anyone else," she notes. "It's not work that any woman would do for pleasure, goodness knows; though to hear the pious people talk, you would suppose it was a bed of roses." As an ingenious adaptation to a wicked world, her arguments are strangely seductive and Ziemba's sunnily rational approach makes them seem like solid common sense.

Such ideas prove deeply unsettling to Mrs. Warren's daughter, Vivie, a role that allows Nicole King to make an impressive Off Broadway debut. Not that she is easily put on the defensive: Vivie, a recent Cambridge graduate with a head for figures, is the opposite of the marriage-minded ingenue her mother intended. The possessor of a handshake that makes strong men weep and a philistine with an aversion to art and music, she knows what she wants: "I like working and getting paid for it. When I'm tired of working, I like a comfortable chair, a cigar, a little whisky, and a novel with a good detective story in it."

Tall, angular, walking with a conventionally masculine stride; King endows Vivie with a piercing intelligence that makes short work of would-be suitors. "I suppose you really think you're getting on famously with me," she tells one of them, to suitably shriveling effect. Observing Mrs. Warren, in a moment of apparent high emotion, daubing her eyes with a handkerchief, she says, "Don't do that, mother. You don't feel it a bit." Indeed, she is willing to accept her mother's fallen-woman status as a necessary evil; then comes the stunning revelation that, far from being retired, Mrs. Warren is the managing director of an international chain of brothels -- cueing a chillingly rational decision that profoundly alters their bond. It was clever of the Gingold Group to finds this young talent; we'll be hearing more from her.

Also happily cast are the men who would marry Vivie. Robert Cuccioli is dapper, yet faintly reptilian, as the moneyed, titled man of affairs who is old enough to her father -- and, for all anyone knows, might be. Jumping from a brief height and landing rather too firmly, he announces that he remains young, as if trying to convince himself of the proposition. Ticking off the names of highly respectable friends with money in one corrupt enterprise or another, he suavely warns Vivie, "If you're going to pick and choose your acquaintances on moral principles, you'd better clear out of this country, unless you want to cut yourself out of all decent society." Making his arguments with silken assurance, Cuccioli can fairly be counted one of the production's assets. The same is true of David Lee Huynh as Vivie's chief wooer, a strapping ne'er-do-well whose ardor cools when he realizes that this meal ticket comes tinged with the threat of maternal scandal.

In all matters Shavian, Staller's scholarship is impressive; this trim, fast-moving edition -- obtained in part by dropping the intermissions -- is seamlessly edited together from several versions. But the director has been a tad careless with his cast, letting Alvin Keith, as an aging aesthete, and Raphael Nash Thompson, as a sententious clergyman (and another candidate for the title of Vivie's father), give fussy, fidgety performances. And, overall, the pace is a tad too fast, with the emphasis on comedy and not the play's darker notes, which involve a sense of a polite society erected on a foundation of exploitation; then again, Staller arranges a telling final tableau, making clear that, for Vivie, Mrs. Warren's influence may be hard to shake off.

The design has its oddities, too. Brian Prather's set -- which looks as if a country cottage had been turned inside out, with flora winding its way through the curtain and bookshelves -- more or less works for the first three acts, which unfold in the Surrey countryside. But it doesn't meet the demands of the final act, set in Vivie's office in Chancery Lane, which requires a distinct change of tone. Asa Benally's costumes and Jamie Roderick's lighting are fairly solid, but Frederick Kennedy's sound design, has its muddy moments. At the performance I attended, it was quite some time before I realized that the muted rumbling under one scene represented thunder.

Whatever the drawbacks, however, one of Shaw's most penetrating comedies is given a fine hearing. In its concern with the muting of women's voices, the trafficking of sex, and in the indictment of the super-rich who profit from the labor of the poor, Mrs. Warren's Profession seems positively ripped from today's headlines. Shaw was asking always pertinent -- actually, impertinent -- questions about any number of social evils. In most cases, we're still looking for the answers. --David Barbour

(28 October 2021)

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