Not everyone gets excited about George Bernard Shaw. I’m not everyone.
The Roundabout Theater Company, having had more misses than hits lately, might get a much-needed boost from their soon-to-open production of Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession. A precise and cutting piece, Mrs. Warren’s Profession concerns Vivie Warren, the most modern of modern-day gals (at least as far as Victorian English standards go), and her complex relationship with her mother, the title character. A woman of independent wealth and independent mind, Mrs. Warren pays her equally self-sufficient daughter a rare visit, during which they come to understand how little they know each other, despite how very much alike they are. Surrounding them both are a handful of men who each have intimate ties to both of them: Vivie’s paramour, Frank; Frank’s crusty, conservative father, Sam; Mrs. Warren’s vibrant friend, Mr. Praed; and her much less enthusiastic business partner, Sir George Crofts.
I won’t give away much more of the plot, as there are many twists and turns that are best left unspoiled. The story is great. But my modifying “might” in the previous paragraph is there for a reason.
There are some problems with Mrs. Warren, and most of them are to be found in the text. Shaw first published the piece in 1893. The language, while not as foreign as Shakespeare, is nevertheless the vernacular of another time. Shaw loves his words, too, so he often uses ten where two would suffice, particularly when setting up and landing a joke. He also loves to hear himself talk, through his characters. Almost every character in Mrs. Warren is given the chance to expound on one of the more topical matters of the time, and it’s clear these viewpoints are every bit the author’s. He has built these characters around–and sometimes in objection to–his bold opinions. Of course, it’s wonderful that their words ring clear and true today, and even better if you can agree with them; but it does skirt the edge of sermonizing. These discussions also lose some of their appeal when held up against the more standard yet more structurally necessary dramatic scenes between characters, which fail to be as stimulating. It’s as if Shaw knew the audience’s attention may wane, so he amped up any and all confrontation scenes into wailing battle royales. I suppose that’s as much the director’s fault as the author’s; but with this one exception, Douglas Hughes has done a commendable job on this show.
Another problem with the show can be traced back to Mr. Shaw himself. He structured Mrs. Warren in four acts. It’s deceiving; for Shaw, the acts are only separated by changes in setting. Hughes decided to have the sole intermission between Acts II and III, which would have been fine had the scene changes between Act I and II, and Act III and IV, not been so incredibly long. Scott Pask’s sets are perhaps a bit too grand and photo-realistic for the production. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, as this was only a preview performance, and I imagine the crew will speed things up with practice.
The strongest point of this production are the performances. Whatever qualms or questions I may have had with the material, there was no doubt in my mind that the cast was in command of it. Mark Harelik gave the oily Crofts so many despicable layers. Michael Siberry gave perfect flummoxed life to a professional prude. Edward Hibbert will have a monopoly on life-affirming distinguished Englishmen as long as he lives. Adam Driver, while not exactly a matinée idol, was nevertheless a charming and sympathetic Frank. Lording over them all was Cherry Jones as Mrs. Warren, a relentless force of nature dressed most flatteringly in finest period dress. Cherry’s Mrs. Warren was so many things: shrewd, seductive, demanding, dishonest, and utterly unsentimental. And holding her own opposite all of them was the understudy for the role of Vivie, one Stephanie Janssen. I confess that she was the reason I attended on that particular evening, and while I had no doubt she’d be great, it was no less gratifying to see and hear the entire theater thunderously applauding her performance. It’s just cool when an understudy knocks it out of the park. The regular cast members even goaded her into a solo bow after the curtain came down.
If you’re in the mood for a wordy, thoughtful, challenging, and combative piece, then I definitely recommend Mrs. Warren’s Profession. But I admit that it’s an acquired taste.