Theater review by Raven Snook
What a difference a century or so makes. Written in 1893, George Bernard Shaw's protofeminist Mrs. Warren's Profession, about a mother who's made a mint as a madam, was banned in Britain for a decade and shut down on opening night on Broadway in 1905, with the cast and crew arrested for disorderly conduct. (Ultimately, the case was thrown out.) Today, it's hard to understand what got everyone so riled up: The script alludes tastefully to its own central subject, implying but never mentioning such words as prostitute, brothel and sex. The real scandal may have been its message: At its core, the play encourages women to smash the patriarchy—a call to arms that continues to give some people the vapors today.
While that call still resonates, however, the plot that supports it now seems rather musty. Having been raised away from home at the finest schools, math whiz and recent university grad Vivie Warren (Nicole King in a superb Off Broadway debut) is summoned to spend time with the mother she barely knows: Kitty Warren (Karen Ziemba), a successful but secretive businesswoman. Crashing their reunion are Kitty's imposing business partner Sir George Crofts (a lecherous Robert Cuccioli); Vivie's underhanded beau, Frank (David Lee Huyhn), and his not-so-pious reverend father (Raphael Nash Thompson); and romantic esthete Praed (Alvin Keith), the one sympathetic chap in the lot. Questions of Vivie's parentage arise, and the revelation of Kitty's métier leads to two crackling encounters between mother and daughter as they come to realize that they are cut from the same cloth but choose to wear it differently.
The third of Shaw's 65 plays, Mrs. Warren's Profession involves concerns to which he often returned, especially the oppression and exploitation of women and the working class. But the story and its male characters lack subtlety, which may be why the play is rarely staged. Shaw expert David Staller, who played Praed in the Irish Rep's 2005 revival, has adapted and streamlined the playwright's 1912 version of the script. Yet even in this shortened form, and under Staller’s energetic direction, the show doesn't really get going until the first mother-daughter debate, in which Kitty unapologetically describes the circumstances that led to her licentious life. Ziemba is best known for her musical-theater performances on Broadway, and she treats Kitty's monologues like delicious arias (delivered in an unplaceable accent that straddles her two worlds). Later, a newly matured Vivie makes the case for a different kind of independence for women: Why game the system when you can try to change the rules? It's in these poignant and intellectually exciting exchanges that Mrs. Warren's Profession becomes more than its moral.
Theatre Row (Off Broadway). By George Bernard Shaw. Directed by David Staller. With Karen Ziemba, Nicole King, Alvin Keith. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission.