The Oldest Profession, by Paula Vogel. Directed by Cathy Lee-Vissscher
"A Woman with an Epic!"
Sally Dodge, Wendy Power Spielmann, Stephanie Sloan, Marie Allocca and Ellen Lieberman
Paula Vogel, a playwright best known for her Pulitzer Prize winning play, "How I Learned to Drive," wrote this human comedy in 1981. It took until 2004, after receiving the above award, for it to be produced. Sometimes there are good reasons, even in the theater, for burying the dead.
Not that this comedy doesn't have some funny lines and some perfectly delightful speeches and, in this presentation, some delicious performances. It has all that. It also has a death-wish. Here's the basic premise: five elderly prostitutes from New Orleans, long-time residents of an SRO suite above Zabar's Deli in New York City, find themselves living with the prospect of losing their home, and losing one another, to marriage, death and the outrages of a life lived with men who are even older than they are at the start of the play. In six scenes, over two acts, these five women find their numbers depleted and ultimately, ousted from their Upper West Side place of business/residence and their mid-town "temporary" quarters, they are reduced to a new, all-time low. "Everybody laugh!" as Stephen Sondheim sings it.
There are surprises in this play. Not everything goes according to plan. The role of Madame is inherited, passed along, abused in more than one way. The sharing of "johns" becomes intrusive and upsetting. And heaven, so to speak, turns out to be a brothel in the Latin Quarter, presided over by a faceless man tinkling the ivories on an old upright. Apparently after death, by the way, each Louisiana whore gets a signature tune which she sings for eternity. How lovely a death.
Lee-Visscher has managed to turn two park benches and a garbage pail into a vivid and varied playing field. She maneuvers Vogel's quintet beautifully through the limitations of their world and if she could have found a means to drop the first scene to its anguished knees we might have had a much better play. As it stands now, and this is not the production's fault - its the play - the long, long, long, first scene just overstates its case, its purpose, its history, its this, that and the other far too often, for far too long. Vogel, not yet a brilliant writer in 1981, just belabors the case histories of her five characters and it gets boring. There are plenty of opportunities to tell us more as the play goes on, and so she does, but principally by restating what is already obvious. Not good writing, I'm afraid.
This is one of those unusual cases where the second act feels right and the first act needs work, lots of work. Still, always up to a challenge, the Ghent Playhouse has brought this play to life through the work of an exceptional crew of performers and technicians. Mae, the Madame, longs for her Storyville home. In the deft hands of Wendy Power Spielmann the character is warm, human and touching. Her humor shines through the role, even when she's making the hard decisions for her girls. The youngest of them, Lillian, played by Stephanie Sloan, has a "heart of gold" and her interaction with the ladies of the afternoon (night has become a difficulty for this crew) is delectable.
Sally Dodge's Ursula is never more real and overbearing than when she finally appears all in black leather carrying a whip. It's a sight to see! She swaggers in fake leopard, saunters in her net stockings and carries on the role of Madame with a verve that wasn't quite right on opening night, but I suspect will be in subsequent performances now that she has guaged an audience's reactions to her over-the-top role. Ellen Lieberman, making her debut as the hooker, Edna, is one of the best in this production. She is a wise-cracking dame with a flair for grand gestures. She has the best song and best delivery of the words and music in this company. When she discusses "one trip around the world with Edna Brown," you know precisely how she and her client felt throughout the experience. Yes, folks, the language of this show is exactly what you might expect from a play about aging whores. Exactly. So be prepared.
Taking the star turn, the final bow, is Vera, played here with an emotional pang by Marie Allocca. If, perhaps, you recall her turn here last season in Social Security as Sophie Greengrass, the aging and difficult mother-in-law who blossoms with love, you will be utterly enthralled by her journey in the opposite direction in this play. This vivacious southern belle turned professional lady is in full flower in Act One and by the conclusion of the play has been transformed into the quintessential homeless person by the play's end and our heart's go out to her. Had the play been written correctly our sympathy and interest would have been centered in this character from the outset. Allocca certainly makes it appear as though that could have been Vogel's intent. Her work is one very good reason to stay to the end. Her lifestory, after all, isn't merely history, it's an epic. And - it only takes two hours including the intermission to get there.
Lee-Visscher has been assisted by an expert crew in realizing the drama of this comedy. Joanne Maurer's costumes are picture perfect, as is the set designed by Bill Visscher. Set outside the old subway station at 72nd Street and Broadway, the wall and the pocket park aspects are exactly right. The lighting by Ian Gulliver works most of the time, but the abruptness of a spotlight's entrance could be toned down a bit, brought up more gradually perhaps. Paul Leyden's piano playing and his surprise appearance add immeasurably to the proceedings.
Not an easy play to like, and certainly not an easy show to open a season, The Oldest Profession, certainly makes an impression. The season to follow is intriguing, with a new Christmas Pantomime up next, a parody that should dispel any gloom left over from this piece. Is it worth the time and money to see how five old bawds play out their final year together - that's for you to decide. I know that I left the theater happy to have seen five excellent performances. It's hard to ask for too much more than that - I suppose.
◊ 10-07-2006 ◊
Marie Allocca and Wendy Power Spielmann
The Ghent Playhouse is located just off Route 66 in Ghent, New York. Tickets range in price from $12 to $20 and the box office can be reached at 518-392-6264. Memberships and season tickets are available. You can also go to their website at www.ghentplayhouse.org.