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Review: Mrs. Warren's Profession Still Provokes, but for Different Reasons

Karen Ziemba stars in Bernard Shaw's play about prostitution and hypocrisy at Theatre Row.

Raphael Nash Thompson, Nicole King, Karen Ziemba, Robert Cuccioli, Alvin Keith, and David Lee Huynh in Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, directed by David Staller for Gingold Theatrical Group, at Theatre Row.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Bernard Shaw's comedy Mrs. Warren's Profession had its American premiere in New Haven, Connecticut, on October 27, 1905, and was promptly shut down by the town's mayor. Three days later the play opened in New York, and the cast and crew were arrested for violating an obscenity law. Months later the indecency charges were dropped, and ever since, the play has gone on to be performed regularly as a major work of the Shavian canon.

It's unlikely that the new production by the Gingold Group, running at Theatre Row, will get many people upset. Far more controversial topics than prostitution have been seen on the stage since then. But then again it wasn't just Mrs. Warren's profession that got audiences riled when the play first appeared in England and America. "Fallen women" had long been a staple of 19th-century theater and were just fine onstage as long as that they were depicted as pretty courtesans who either went on to commit suicide or suffer some horrible death.

Shaw, however, got folks in a tizzy by flipping that convention on its head. His Kitty Warren was a successful businesswoman who made a fortune as the owner of several high-class brothels in a society that provided next to no opportunities for women to survive on their own, let alone amass wealth. Prostitution, Shaw was saying, was not the result of a woman's moral failing, but the express fault of a society that perpetuated it and then had the nerve to be offended by it.

Karen Ziemba as Kitty Warren, and Nicole King as her daughter, Vivie, in Mrs. Warren's Profession.
(© Carol Rosegg)

The idea of hypocritical moral outrage is one of the reasons that Mrs. Warren's Profession is still relevant 116 years after its American premiere, and why it deserves another look. David Staller has adapted the play into a trim, taut version that sometimes veers away from that essential theme, but strong performances from the cast, led by Karen Ziemba, help keep the play on course.

Before we meet Ziemba's strong-willed Kitty, we meet Kitty's daughter, Vivie (Nicole King), a young woman who likes cigars, a glass of whiskey, and a good mystery novel. She's a brilliant mathematician with a degree from Cambridge, but she's unaware of how her mother has paid for her schooling. She's also not sure who her father is. Kitty's friend Praed (Alvin Keith) pays Vivie a visit and, despite his admiration for modern women, impresses her as being entirely conventional. Then along comes ne'er-do-well Frank Gardner (David Lee Huynh), who's looking to marry Vivie, or anyone, for money. It's no problem for him that they may be half-siblings; Frank's father, the Reverend Samuel Gardner (Raphael Nash Thompson), had a romantic relationship with Kitty long ago.

Kitty's stuffy, middle-aged business partner, Sir George Crofts (Robert Cuccioli), is also interested in marrying Vivie, but she'll have none of it. When the truth comes out about Kitty's profession, Vivie admires her mother for finding a way out of poverty, but not for continuing to make money off the backs of women after she no longer needs to. So she decides to cut ties with her mother, her money, and with the money-hungry men in her life in order to forge a path for herself.

Robert Cuccioli and Karen Ziemba in Mrs. Warren's Profession.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Karen Ziemba brilliantly embodies the bare-knuckled practicality of Kitty Warren, who bucks the same system that she eventually becomes a part of. Ziemba is ably balanced by King, who plays Vivie with an intelligent innocence, reflected in Brian Prather's Edenic set of bookcases overgrown with leafy vines. The men of the cast bring much of the play's comedic relief. Keith glides about the stage prattling about culture like an effete out of Wilde, while Thompson hilariously brings to life the easily flustered reverend who's terrified that his secret affair with Kitty will be revealed. Cuccioli and Huynh play against each other as Vivie's ultimately unsuccessful suitors. Cuccioli, donning a tight-fitting suit (costumes by Asa Benally), has the bloated bluster and arrogance of a Wall Street fat cat as Huynh buzzes around him like an annoying bumblebee. Staller has made sure to maintain the comedy in what might easily become a heavy piece.

But one of the missteps in this otherwise admirable production is Staller's decision to bookend the play with scenes showing Vivie sitting at her desk thinking about a conversation among the play's men in which they talk about people blaming their sad lives on the circumstances they've been handed, rather than going out and making their lives better. It's a sentiment Ayn Rand would adore. In our age of hyper-woke liberals, Christian Trump supporters, and ethically questionable big-tech companies, perhaps a better bookend would have been Vivie staring out at the audience and saying, "You're all hypocrites." Then the play might actually ruffle some feathers again.

Raphael Nash Thompson as Reverend Samuel Gardner, and David Lee Huynh as his son, Frank, in Mrs. Warren's Profession.
(© Carol Rosegg)