The Oldest Profession at Theatre Southwest: A Turkey

The setup:

In The Oldest Profession, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel has turned her attention to prostitution, and created a play about four women of a certain age who turn tricks in a Westside hotel in New York and meet in a park to turn in their earnings to an even older madam.

The execution:

The set has an iron fence upstage with some plantings, but this is simply a backdrop to a floor painted gray in what I gather is meant to be a cement area in a park, with an unrealistically long park bench freshly painted, as though pigeons had avoided this area, as absent as the grass one would expect. The bench is extra-long because it has to contain four full-bodied women side-by-side. I was seated at the side of the thrust stage and so had primarily a view of just the profile of the one on stage right -- the three sitting next to her couldn't be seen. If you come to see the play, arrive early and sit in front of the stage, should you have any interest in seeing the performers. David Holloway directed, and the blocking arrangement of the actors might have worked on a proscenium stage, but is a disaster in this theater.

Playwright Vogel has gone to great lengths to ensure that we know that these are not whores in the usual sense, but by and large sweet ladies who are sort of caregivers to lonely older men, a bit like Jane Wyman as a nurse in 1951's The Blue Veil. This is not a work designed to seriously contemplate the plight of working girls -- I use the word "girls" in the broadest possible sense. Carolyn Montgomery plays the madam -- she has appeared in more than 100 plays in the Houston area, and she manages to create an interesting, though unrealistic, portrait of madam as den mother. Montgomery has stage presence and authority and survives the ordeal of this comedic venture better than one dared hope.

Cheryl Tanner plays Vera, the quietest and most naive of the bunch, and creates a plausible characterization, and makes one care for her. Lisa Schofield plays Edna, an underwritten part, and a waste of her vast talents. Mary Lou Roschback plays Ursula, dedicated to cost management, and usually so angry and charmless one might well pay not to sleep with her. Sandi Morgan plays Lillian with an unnecessary intensity close to over-acting and seems especially ill-at-ease in her "dance " number, as though she were wishing that she were somewhere -- anywhere -- else. There are jokes, often labored, and director Holloway has the actors "sell" these, instead of merely delivering them, which of course kills the humor.

The going price for the favors of these ladies seems to be $10. The play is set in the early Reagan years, but that does seem to be a bit low even for mature women -- or is Vogel just going for the cheap joke? As the ladies die and go to their just reward beyond -- heaven, one assumes, despite their trade -- they shed a raincoat to reveal hot pants with sparkles and do a sort of nightclub wriggle. As bad as this is, the worst part is that the formulaic writing ensures that many such tortures lie in wait for us. Schofield has the most fun with this, and her exit lines draw the biggest laughs -- but these are shamelessly lifted from Mae West, not original with Vogel.

The actors all merit hazard pay and purple hearts for appearing in this turkey -- one can only assume that in agreeing to take part in this venture, the luster of Vogel's reputation blurred their vision of what's actually on the script. Needless to say, despite its title, this is one of the most sexless plays I've seen -it should be rated "M," for "Mature only." Theatre Southwest is an important artistic landmark outside the loop, and has had many brilliant productions -- but this is not one of them.

The verdict:

If your taste is for weak, grim, sentimental comedy, give it a shot. But be warned that it's a four-minute Saturday Night Live skit stretched far beyond its breaking point.

The Oldest Profession continues through November 17 at Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. For ticketing or information, call 713-661-9505 or visit the company website.

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