It’s hard to look at the new production at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre and see what the fuss was all about. The play’s central theme is prostitution, though the word is never uttered. Under the Victorian mores of the time it was forbidden to portray this vice in a positive light.
Unfortunately, the play’s history is more interesting than its current incarnation. Thankfully, the play has a member of America’s reigning theatre royalty in the cast, Cherry Jones, playing Mrs. Kitty Warren. Ms. Jones as Kitty is part Barbara Stanwyck, part Mae West, part Ruth Gordon (who did the role on Broadway in 1976). She is the complete antithesis of the Victorian woman. She is a woman who had to fend for herself and rather than tie herself up in a loveless marriage, worked as a prostitute. Shaw himself described her as an “old blackguard of a woman.”
While in an effort to renew her distant relationship with her priggish daughter, Vivie, Kitty actually mortifies her when Vivie learns the source of the money that kept her in style and paid for her Cambridge education. She forgives her mother only to disavow her anew after learning that her mother’s enterprise is not only still in existence but thriving in Brussels, Ostend, Vienna and Budapest.
English actress Sally Hawkings is Vivie in a performance that could be described as uneven at best, off the mark entirely at worst. She seems anything but the prim and proper woman she’s portraying. She actually comes off as bi-polar. I also found Ms. Hawkings difficult to understand.
Vivie’s love interest, Frank Gardner is played with squawking goofiness by Adam Driver. Most of his lines appear to be delivered an octave higher than necessary. Frank is the son of the Reverend Samuel Gardner, played by Michael Siberry. Mr. Siberry delivers a hang-over scene that borders on mime.
Not even the funny Edward Hibbert can save this lumbering display. He plays Mr. Praed, a friend of Kitty’s. (Note to Mr. Hibbert: would love to see you do something different, perhaps something without a British accent?) Mark Harelik gives an amiable enough performance as Kitty’s business partner, Sir George Crofts, a miserable man who upon learning that he cannot attain the affections of Vivie, informs her that her lover, is actually (spoiler alert) her half-brother.
Scott Pask’s set is the picture-perfect English estate with high hedge walls surrounding it. The talented Catherine Zuber has designed beautiful and period-perfect habiliments for her cast.Director Doug Hughes hasn’t broken any new ground with this production. He has set a pace that is hypnotising and creaky. The fact remains, unless Cherry Jones is on stage, you pretty much don’t care about what’s going on up there.