George Bernard Shaw’s play Mrs. Warren’s Profession was first staged in New York City in 1905, well before women’s liberation. So when it debuted, a show focused on the proprietress of a chain of high-class whorehouses must have really rattled the cages of prudish people. The only problem is that we are more than a century beyond those times and the feminist movement did indeed happen — decades ago, in fact. And the Roundabout Theatre Company’s new Broadway revival does little to make this rather old-fashioned story feel vital in an age when the mere mention of a whorehouse doesn’t carry much shock value.
Not that the words whorehouse or prostitute or brothel are ever mentioned in Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Shaw writes intricate, fast-paced dialogue that manages to tiptoe around precisely exactly what Mrs. Warren does for a living — which is both clever and, to be honest, maddening.
The play’s central tension revolves around the relationship of Mrs. Warren (24‘s Cherry Jones) and her daughter, Vivie (Happy-Go-Lucky‘s Sally Hawkins), who has been raised in the idyllic English countryside, educated at fine schools, and kept far, far away from her mother’s secretive business. Mrs. Warren returns to foster a life with her now grown daughter, amid a supporting cast of men that includes Vivie’s poor love interest, Frank Gardner (Adam Driver); Frank’s clergyman father, Samuel (Michael Siberry); Mrs. Warren’s scallywag of a business partner, Sir Geroge Crofts (Mark Harelik), who has designs on Vivie himself; and Mrs. Warren’s jovial longtime friend, Mr. Praed (Edward Hibbert). A series of revelations culminates in spectacular fireworks between the two women in the last (and best) of the show’s four acts. The final scene, which sees Vivie and Mrs. Warren duke it out with words, is memorable, simply because it imbues the rather staid show with some much-needed passion.
It’s a talk-driven show, but director Doug Hughes’ staging occasionally feels inert. (Perhaps the cast needs more time for the comic pacing to fully gel.) At times, the fast-talking actors are difficult to understand, especially as some of the British accents seem to trot around the entire island, going in and out. Too often, the performers remain fixed in one spot on the stage amid sets (by Scott Pask) that manage to seem both grand and cold at the same time.
Mrs. Warren’s Profession moves at a pretty quick clip, and Jones maintains a commanding and grand presence on stage. But overall, a little nipping and tucking — better blocked scenes, some trims of long-winded passages, warmer sets — would have made this show’s oftentimes arduous work a lot more appealing. C+
(Tickets: roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300)