Mrs. Warren's Profession, which opened for business Oct. 3 at the American Airlines Theatre, is the world's oldest — and the source of such hypocritical moral indignation in Britain that it was banned from the English stage from 1894 to 1902. But that was then, and this is now, and now all kinds of cultural shock-absorbers have kicked in — to such a degree that GBS is starting to sound like ABBA, especially in the opening scene when three middle-aged moths are flapping their flabby wings around an old flame and the question of who fathered the woman's now-grown and eminently marriageable daughter is raised.
The paternity issue is merely an appetizer. Shaw's main course is a mother-daughter banquet, and it's a real acting feast for those who take it on. Here, we have in one corner Cherry Jones, two-time Tony winner and one-term U.S. President (via TV's "24"); in the other is Sally Hawkins, a new critical darling (via the Mike Leigh flick, "Happy-Go-Lucky") imported from Britain to make her Broadway debut.
The root of their conflict is the root of all evil — and the good it does. Vivie Warren (Hawkins) has been raised, mostly motherless, by nannies and tutors in isolated splendor and, unfettered by financial concerns, becomes something of a math whiz in academia. Mother Kitty (Jones, in blowsy cherry-red gowns) has financed this life from a cathouse empire she has created, and, after a couple decades, decides to look in on her investment and see if she can skim a little reciprocal love off the top.
All this is played out on a country estate that is paid for with Momma's ill-gotten gains. If the old-flame dame is to be believed, the daughter's dad is not on the premises — he's not the architect (Edward Hibbert), not the businessman (Mark Harelik), not the minister (Michael Siberry). That's her story. Then, she makes her move on a possible son-in-law (Adam Driver). "Isn't it a good play?" trilled a contented Jones later at the after-party held way out west on West 42nd at the elegantly spacious Espace. "You gotta give it all you got. Shaw writes it to be primal. There was a scene I was worried about, but the fourth act with Sally felt really strong. Isn't she magnificent? It's such a demanding role. She is the central character of the play. Mrs. Warren's name is in the title, but Vivie is the central character, and it is an exhausting role for a young actress."
There was also an exhausting schedule that Hawkins had to contend with while putting together her Broadway debut performance — namely, the elaborate, far-flung launching of her new movie, "Made in Dagenham," in which she leads female workers in a 1968 strike at a Ford car plant protesting sexual discrimination. Bob Hoskins and Miranda Richardson co-star along with such New York rialto-known names as Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Graves and Kenneth Cranham. (For her next film, she'll continue the firebrand trend and play Irish activist Bernadette Devlin in "The Roaring Girl.")
For now, Hawkins is confining her roaring to the Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre, and Jones says she's frankly surprised at the ferocity at the returned-serves she has been getting. "While we've been in previews, Sally has had to go to the Toronto Film Festival for the film's premiere, then she had to fly to London for 48 hours and open it there. I don't know how she's done what she's done. We had a beautiful understudy on for her for several performances — she was very good — Stephanie Janssen is her name. Every time, Sally kept coming back with this stamina that I don't know how she comes up with because she has been taxed to the max. Edward Hibbert calls her The Iron Butterfly. She's an incredible actress."
One has to be pretty incredible to keep up with the Jones girl, even here where she has tucked her nun's habit and her spinster high-collar away with her Tonys and bravely, gamely gone for broke. "That's why I did it," exclaims Shaw's former Major Barbara, "to try a character I've never tried before." Prostitution does shake up the image after the Presidency certainly, and bordello madame is not remotely an ideal fit for her, but watching her get there is a lesson in the acting art.
Her Kitty Warren is not a conventional, contemporary type of tart but more reminiscent of the way Gladys George and Mae West used to trot out the old heart-of-gold stereotype, full of brass tacks and sass. Think Belle Watling, and you're in the right ballpark. "I think brothel women are a little bit of a tomboy," says Jones, who swaggers confidently into a room more than she girlishly sashays. "There's a bravura about them. It wasn't about sex. It was about a game they played for men."
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Hawkins, who can currently be seen as the lone voice of reason in "Never Let Me Go," functions similarly in Mrs. Warren's Profession, but she has pumped up the volume considerably for the theatre. "Good vocal tricks," she shrugs sweetly, "and I used my diaphragm very well." The original actress set to play Vivie dropped out at the last moment, and director Doug Hughes flew to London to cast Hawkins — a last-minute save, just four weeks before the start of rehearsals. It clearly sat well with her: "Broadway actress — I should put it on a T-shirt."
She is one of several stars launched into the firmament by director Leigh. He made her opening night and stayed late, despite a screening and press conference the next a.m. for his latest film, "Another Year." Unsurprising, he had nothing but praise for his latest gift to Broadway. "I've never seen the role of Vivie played as a character part before," he admits. "It's extraordinary seeing her doing what she does."
Leigh also authors kitchen-sink plays, and most made Off-Broadway beachheads here, courtesy of The New Group. He is planning to revive one of his earliest opuses, Ecstasy, in London soon and write a new play before he films again.
This is Hibbert's second shot at the architect role, having previously done it at the McCarter. "The first time with the lovely Emily Mann was a four-week run in Princeton," he points out, "and we have already done longer than that in previews here, and I just have an affinity with this part and the timelessness of this play that I wanted to come back to it, and when I heard Doug was doing it and Cherry and this wonderful Sally Hawkins, I went, 'What's not to like?' The character is interesting. In the middle of all this world of money and banking, you have this sort of Bloomsbury-ite creature, a bohemian, an anarchist by his own admission, and he's the closest friend of Mrs. Warren. I think the relationship between a man and a woman — a friendship that doesn't involve sex — is always interesting. He knows a lot more than, perhaps, you think he does — so there are a lot of levels to mine on that front."
Harelik looks very much the titled Englishman businessman he plays, just as he looked as though he belonged in the Italy of The Light in the Piazza. His terrible secret, he confessed, is that he is really a Texan. The drinks-du-jour making the rounds at the Espace party were "Shavian Spirits" and "The Capitalist Cocktail." They were said to separate the wits from the boys.
Tony winners by the ton attended: Frances Sternhagen from Jones' Heiress, Jane Alexander with hubby-director Edwin Sherin, Julie White, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, composer Charles Strouse, Boyd Gaines, David Hyde Pierce, Elling-bound Denis O'Hare (on transfusion or remission or hiatus from "True Blood") and Roger Rees.
A whole Brief Encounter contingent was in attendance, it being a Roundabout show, and most of them still levitating from the critical love offerings they garnered — Hannah Yelland, Joseph Alessi, Dorothy Atkinson, Annette McLaughlin and Edward Jay.
An unofficial reunion of the Is He Dead? irregulars also formed: Patricia Conolly, David Pittu, costume designer Martin Pakledinaz and Byron Jennings. Pittu just won a Creative Spirit Award from Daryl Roth and has been (perfectly) cast as Sandor in the Encores' upcoming Bells Are Ringing. Conolly is back from San Diego where she premiered "a gem of a play by Joe DiPietro, called The Last Romance, with Marion Ross — 'Happy Days' Marion — and her partner, Paul Michael. I was the youngest one in it." And Jennings is deep in rehearsal for Broadway's next The Merchant of Venice, as is Lily Rabe, who attended with her actor-bro, Michael. It's a good omen, as Patrick Stewart learned in '08 and Al Pacino may learn in '11, to have Jennings speak the first line in Shakespeare. He's an eloquent mood-setter.
Also: Bobby Cannavale, Jason Fuchs (who has a DVD movie coming out next week with Jesse Eisenberg called "Holy Rollers" and a big guest-shot on "The Good Wife" Oct. 19), Finian's Rainbow's Tony nominee Kate Baldwin (san hubby Graham Rowat, who was wrapping the musical Saved in Kansas City), playwrights Theresa Rebeck and Paula Vogel, Amanda Peet and Sarah Paulson, Tovah Feldshuh, director Michael Montel (who's mounting I Remember Mama for York's Mufti series Oct. 8-10 with George S. Irving and Maureen Silliman from the original Broadway cast), Gideon Glick, men's designer John Barlett, Sara Gettelfinger now of A Free Man of Color, Joanna Lumley rebounding on Broadway from London in La Bete, Helen Carey and Helen Stenborg, mother of Mrs. Warren's director.