By Christopher Moore, Broadway Magazine
It is not an exaggeration to say that there is no other performance on Broadway more brilliantly imagined than Cherry Jones in Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Her performance is transcendently brilliant. To catalog her achievements would be to rob you of the experience. See this performance, if you do nothing else in the next 150 years.
In the current Broadway production of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” at the American Airlines Theatre, Ms. Jones brings to life one of George Bernard Shaw’s most memorable non-conformists. A 19th Century working woman, who succeeded in one of the few lines of business that permitted female success in that age –prostitution. Not simply a practitioner, Shaw’s Mrs. Warren is a true entrepreneur who has achieved a Trump-like success in the oldest profession running a string of houses across the capitals of Europe.
In Ms. Jones’ performance, Mrs. Warren is both a true Shavian capitalist (”I love making money”) and a woman of the world. An authentically original performance, Ms. Jones’ achievement is not in re-imagining the character in a new way. Rather it is her amazing fidelity to the spirit of Shaw’s creation that makes the performance so memorable. Part Mae West and part Eliza Dolittle, Ms. Jones has so artfully rendered her character that you forget Mrs. Warren is a character at all.
While some Shaw plays may be word-heavy and dramatically-light, that is not the case with “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” The playwright’s concern with issues of class and the oppression of women retains an Ibsen-like intensity; but with this play Shaw’s insight into human nature is equally vibrant. At the center of the play is Vivie Warren, the daughter of Mrs. Warren, who has been given a privileged upbringing completely unaware of the source of her mother’s wealth. Once the truth comes to light, the daughter faces a conflict between morality and economic reality. It is an inspired play in any context, and as refreshingly modern as any play written in the last twenty years.
The production from the Roundabout Theatre benefits greatly from an accomplished cast who, for the most part, have an unaffected ease with Shaw’s language and ideas. Both the humor and the insight of Shaw are on full display, and across the board the cast deserves praise. As Vivie, Sally Hawkins imbues her character with both the requisite awkwardness of a mathematical genius and the fiery soul of a Shavian heroine. Mark Harelik, like Ms. Jones, brings rich texture and dimension to the character of Sir George Crofts. Michael Siberry and Adam Driver as father and son equally and effortlessly deliver performances that are nuanced too. Representing the voice of the artist in the production, Edward Hibbert does not overly embellish his character with an Oscar Wilde-like flair. Mr. Hibbert is wholly grounded in his performance and subtle in his interpretation. It is a strong ensemble without a weak link.
Where the production seems to get off-base slightly is in Act IV of the play. While Ms. Hawkins’ performance as Vivie benefits early on from frenetic mannerisms and a sometimes-rushed and sometimes-halting delivery; however, she fails to find the certitude of Vivie in the last act. This makes the final act (and the production itself) less of a success. Shaw peppers his stage directions for Vivie in the final act with words like “calmly,” “steadfastly,” “quietly,” “kindly,” and “matter-of-factly.” However, in the production Ms. Hawkins’ Vivie seems still quite conflicted and extremely volatile. This undermines the final scene of the play as it becomes a bit of a shouting match with furniture being slapped about and characters screeching at one another over a desk. Always accomplished at creating unsympathetic parental characters, in Mrs. Warren Shaw has crafted a masterpiece. Ms. Jones makes us love Mrs. Warren, but that doesn’t mean she is necessarily a good mother, as Shaw reveals. The tone of the final act feels discordant with the play Shaw wrote. Ms. Hawkins’ Vivie’s instability denies a counterpoint to Ms. Jones’ desperation in the final act. That is a minor disappointment.
Very minor. The truth is that if there is only one right way to play Shaw on Broadway, this production would be it. Impeccably produced and well-acted, this is Shaw at is joyous best. The Roundabout production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession is a rare chance to experience Shaw on stage in a production that lets the playwright’s voice be heard. More than this, you will believe that it is quite possible that when George Bernard Shaw wrote this play so long ago, he was actually writing it for Cherry Jones.
Photos by Joan Marcus.
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