In reviving “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” George Bernard Shaw’s cantankerous 1894 drama exposing the moral hypocrisy behind a smug society’s repressive sexual mores, the Roundabout performs a double service. The first favor is in bringing this bracing play of ideas back to Broadway for the first time in almost 35 years. Making the gift even more attractive, the production stars Cherry Jones as the imperishable Mrs. Kitty Warren, a character whose flashing intelligence and flamboyant manner make her a perfect match-up for this remarkable actress. Other than that, Doug Hughes’ workmanlike production is nothing to write home about.
The company tendency for overproduction gives the show a stiffness that impedes Shaw’s fluidly flowing thoughts on the ways that our culture allows (and disallows) women to sell themselves in the social marketplace. Exteriors look unnatural, interiors feel too formal, and there are entirely too many chairs around for characters who are too stimulated by their own racing thoughts to be sitting down so much.
But there can be no overstatement when it comes to dressing Mrs. Warren (Jones), the entrepreneurial genius who scandalized polite society by operating a string of successful brothels. The gorgeously blowsy red gown (by Catherine Zuber) and traffic-stopping wig (by Tom Watson) in which Jones makes her grand entrance clearly announce that this is a woman to be reckoned with.
Jones couldn’t be more delicious as she drapes herself onto a chair (is that really the best way to show off that spectacular gown?) and lets it be known that she makes no apology for who she is and what she does for a living — even if she doesn’t want to drag her daughter Vivie (Sally Hawkins) into that life. Having sent the girl away to be educated in the ways of respectable society, she is more than proud to reclaim her now-grown child and bask in her well-trained ladylike ways.
The stages of Jones’ perf are so subtly orchestrated that it’s impossible to spot those critical moments when she realizes that things aren’t going the way she planned. Almost imperceptibly, she softens the rough edges of Mrs. Warren’s earthy vulgarity, allowing her togather her thoughts and deliver a heartfelt explanation to her daughter, defending her unorthodox profession without apologizing for it. The moment is electric, bristling with sharply remembered pain and immediate maternal anxiety.
Jones is no less compelling in the play’s other great mother-daughter confrontation, when Mrs. Warren desperately tries to educate Vivie in the hypocritical manner in which society functions.
But while the actress is magnificent, the two-handed scene doesn’t play, largely because Vivie is no match for her in this ideological debate between the pragmatic woman of an older generation and the independent New Woman who has emerged to challenge her. Although Hawkins contributes passion to the argument, there’s no sense of pride or self-possession in her shrill delivery. Fighting hard to score her points, she seems not to understand that, as Shaw’s modern woman, she has already won this battle.
A similar imbalance shows in other aspects of the production. Adam Driver, a hot downtown commodity who makes his Broadway debut here as Vivie’s inappropriate young suitor, shows a wonderful facility for the Shavian language and a nicely nasty appreciation for the Shavian wit. And dear, reliable Edward Hibbert gives us his plummiest impression of Mrs. Warren’s dear, reliable friend, Mr. Praed. But it’s all too easy to forget who else is onstage.