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Theater Review: A Friendly Clash of Charms in Mrs. Warren’s Profession

Cherry Jones and Adam Driver.

“I was always a bit of a vulgarian,” deadpans Mrs. Kitty Warren (Cherry Jones), international madam, in a self-created mono-lect that sways suggestively, if not always decidedly, from Mae West to Mrs. Lovett. The line isn’t quite “Come up and see me sometime” (and George Bernard Shaw was hardly W.C. Fields), but this is still a more voluptuous Cherry Jones than we’re accustomed to, parading through Doug Hughes’s vividly uneven production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession. She seems to be shifting an ever-present lozenge of dangerous irony around her amused, contemptuous mouth. “I can’t stand saying one thing when everyone knows I mean another,” she says, with thrilling mendacity. “If people arrange the world that way for women, there’s no good pretending it’s arranged the other way.”

Arranged it most certainly is, this immaculately, elaborately landscaped hedge-maze of a realm that Hughes and designer Scott Pask have erected around Shaw’s once-infamous play. (I kept expecting to see a white rabbit with a pocket watch — or maybe The Prisoner’s Patrick McGoohan — saunter out of an alcove.) The hedges are high and handsome and a little bit much, not unlike the world created by Mrs. Warren to protect and confine her immaculately progressive daughter Vivie (Sally Hawkins). It’s a vast marzipan lie concealing all-too-guessable exigencies and excrescences. Vivie, a self-consciously “new” woman, is about to learn she’s the product of the oldest profession. Her room-of-one’s-own is rented by the hour, and hypocrisy, not Hippolyta, is her sponsor. Vivie’s an actuary in training, a lover of clean-lined math, but when it comes to the very nature of her existence, a festering tangle of old falsehoods lies just beneath the topiary.

There’s something tangled about this new Roundabout production, too, a bit of chaos hiding behind those high, blind hedges — some of it intentional, much of it, I sense, not. The lighter, more epigram-studded scenes zip along well enough. Hawkins brings along much of the skittering nervousness that made her such a winning elfin presence in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. It’s less effective here, unfortunately. Why all the Ritalin shuddering, exactly? Why can’t she make eye contact? Is her near-PTSD twitch a contextual choice or just a tic? Hawkins has made her character’s discomfort ours, but I’m not sure she’s serving the play by doing so. Still, she enjoys a nice rapport with the equally weird Adam Driver, who plays Frank, Vivie’s forthright libertine of a suitor, as a kind of horny Asperger’s sufferer. They both aspire to different versions of modernness — she an unsexed independence; he a kind of sub-Byronic dissipation — and they’re both unmistakably children, “advanced” yet unformed. They enjoy a deeply creepy anti-courtship that borders on role-play kink, Frank being the “little boy” and “Vivvums” his scolding governess. There have always been deep aquifers of strangeness beneath Shaw’s didactic text, with strains of incest and pederasty that cry out for interpretation. Hawkins and Rider supply it in goopy handfuls, and if the results aren’t always coherent, they’re at least engaging.

Equally magnetic are Mark Harelik’s glowering-goon performance as the monstrous Sir Crofts, Kitty’s push troll of a business partner; the delightful Edward Hibbert as the clueless artist Praed; and the clowning Michael Siberry as Rev Gardner, a dull-witted clergyman with a checkered past and just enough wit to hang on to his social position. They’re a motley bunch: The abstract design on Scott Pask’s curtain drop suggests a crazy quilt, and the ensemble seems to have claimed this as its sigil — they’re all set catty-corner to one another. Like the decadent rainbow excesses of Mrs. Warren’s parade-float wardrobe, there’s a lurid cartoonishness to everything onstage, from the performances to the shimmery incidental music, and it’s all perfectly daffy for a while, a chromatograph of Shaw’s epigrammatic wit. “In just one of a gallery of verbal bull's-eyes, Frank tells Vivie, “There's a freemasonry among thoroughly immoral people.” Maybe that's so, but in this production, they haven’t settled on a single secret handshake.

At the top of that mystical pyramid is Jones, of course. Her accent, her carriage, her presence itself are all the actress’s unique inventions, with referents in a private reality she maintains by will alone. But that reality doesn’t necessarily blend with anyone else’s. When she impinges on another actor’s space (Frank’s, for example, in the play’s single most earthy and arresting moment), there’s an audible crackle. That’s not to say it feels right. And nowhere is the underlying wrongness more apparent than in the two crucial scenes between Kitty and Vivie. When mother and daughter must ultimately test each other’s moral mettle, we find that these two are not only from different worlds but also from slightly different productions: Two vivid, idiosyncratic performances collide here, dampening each other into gray noise. Even as great geysers of Acting were expended, I can't say I felt a single human emotion roll over me, beyond a high indistinct agitation. Both look incredibly relieved when they get to turn away from each other and disappear into some vast Shavian speech. Yes, Kitty and Vivie are each other’s nemeses, but we should feel their kinship as much as their existential incongruity. That piquant dissonance never materializes. Lost in themselves, and mewed in by Pask’s maze, Jones and Hawkins never find each other, not even long enough to land a punch. Under the tears and the histrionics, they seem to mean nothing to each other. Thus, we’re treated to the tidy geometric outline of Shaw's social critique, but without the stochastic human fierceness of his dramatic art. And that feels like a bit of a hedge, doesn’t it?

At the American Airlines Theatre; through November 21.

Photo: Joan Marcus