Theatre Is Easy: “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”

Written by Theatre, Theatre Is Easy

The Roundabout Theatre is at it again with a revival of Shaw’s classic play, starring TV president Cherry Jones in a much different role. Molly Marinik has the details.

BOTTOM LINE: This classic Shaw revival offers wonderful performances and an endearing interpretation of the story; the production, on the other hand, takes itself too seriously and misses the mark with an unnecessary pretension.

Mrs. Warren has quite a profession, indeed. Although never directly addressed by name, this highly successful enterprise is both bawdy and thriving. It’s also highly lucrative, having afforded Mrs. Warren’s daughter, Vivie, a luxurious life. Vivie is academically inclined and hasn’t really questioned her somewhat estranged mom’s business endeavors, until one fateful weekend at Mrs. Warren’s house when the two meet for some mother-daughter bonding. This makes for a humorous story, and the Roundabout Theatre’s new Broadway revival indulges in its dry wit.

George Bernard Shaw wrote this family comedy in 1893. Although the subject matter isn’t necessarily shocking by today’s standards, it’s still risqué, especially given the time period. It’s hard to imagine late 19th century audiences feeling comfortable with a plot involving prostitution. That dichotomy between era and subject matter, however, makes the story all the more intriguing.

Cherry Jones and Sally Hawkins in Mrs. Warren’s Profession at the Roundabout Theatre.

Cherry Jones, as Mrs. Warren, is the picture of a sophisticated business owner, reveling in the finer things. Her bourgeois exterior doesn’t fully cover her meager upbringing, though. On the other hand, Vivie, played by Sally Hawkins, exudes a polished expectancy as the headstrong, overly moral young woman.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession is written with a keen sentimentality to its central characters and their relationship; despite their flaws, Shaw has written two sympathetic women. Part of the reason the story works so splendidly is that it is nuanced with sex and voyeurism while the real plot concerns a degrading relationship between a distant daughter and the mother who loves her more than anything.

Jones and Hawkins are splendid in their multifaceted roles. They play their own dualities with amazing attention and it’s extrapolated when they are pitted against each other. Jones (Doubt) has proven herself one of the best actresses working today, and Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky) holds her own – it helps that she herself is British, has considerable stage experience and obviously understands Shaw.

With two outstanding leads, four perfectly cast supporting male characters, and a timeless script that is as cutthroat as it is silly, there is a lot to enjoy about this show. Unfortunately the production itself misses the mark. Its eyes are bigger than its…well…stage.

The story presents the dichotomy between grandiose affluence and down-to-earth reality. The profession in question was birthed out of necessity, and Mrs. Warren herself is always reverent to her modest childhood. And yet, this production feels way too showy in comparison.

Director Doug Hughes tries his best, but frequently the actors end up in a line, or another awkward formation amongst the impeccably designed yet clunky sets and the showy, couture period costumes. The rigidity of the visuals hinders the very real plot development that the actors try their hardest to evoke.

In the final scene, a blow-out conversation between the Warren women, the scenic design is so unnecessarily pristine and artsy (the perspective is skewed on purpose) that although it looks lovely, it distracts from the reality of the feud happening between the characters.

This seems like an obvious rule: when your stage is shared by Jones and Hawkins, don’t upstage them with your set.

What’s worse, the curtain is dropped twice during the show – once in the middle of each act – so the set can be changed completely out of the audience’s view. If you’re purposely removing the audience from the world of the play for 90 seconds, virtually shutting them out and jarring them into the reality of being an audience member, you had better be doing that for an important reason.  When that curtain rises, the audience should see a jungle animal, or an airplane, or at the very least something that seems like it would be hard to get on stage. And that is sadly not the case here.

The play that the actors are in and they play being presented by the Roundabout Theatre aren’t always in sync. This production might be better served in a theatre downtown with a dozen props and a bench. That said, the sets, costumes and visual elements are all pretty to look at, even if they’re not always appropriate. And with Broadway ticket pricing, you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth.

Shaw would likely have a lot to say about this revival, but despite its visual discordance, he would most definitely appreciate the performances. Jones, Hawkins and company have a keen understanding of his touching and witty story and they seem to be having a wonderful time telling it.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession plays at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., through Sun 11/28. Performances are Tue 8 PM, Wed and Sat 2 and 8 PM, Thu-Fri 8 PM, and Sun 2 PM. Tickets are $67-$127 and can be purchased at roundabouttheatre.org. For more New York theatre reviews, visit theasy.com.