Life's just not easy for working women in Manhattan. The stress, pressure to perform, coping with a changing marketplace... Do the hassles of the business world ever end, except by death? Apparently not, at least when the business in question is prostitution, as it is in Paula Vogel's play The Oldest Profession, which is having its premiere at Signature Theatre Company's Peter Norton Space.
For the five women at the center of the play - all, shall we say, seasoned practitioners with decades of experience behind them - the onset of the Ronald Reagan administration brings about a number of changes that threaten their very way of life, and threaten to make their chosen vocation about as insecure as another time-honored New York trademark: acting.
In that department, at least, audiences need not worry: Marylouise Burke, Carlin Glynn, Katherine Helmond, Priscilla Lopez, and Joyce Van Patten are all marvelous: They're warm and funny, bitchy and bright, and exactly the kind of adventuresome and oh-so-talented performers needed to make a show like this not only credible, but richly funny and moving. And, as the play proves to be slight and a bit muddy, that's no small achievement.
The story focuses primarily on the group's economic troubles over the course of four years, beginning in 1980, as the women watch their long-cherished business fall by the wayside. As New York begins to change into a cleaner, more gentrified place, less hospitable to their kind than it once was, the women's lives, contributions, and spirits begin to fade away until all that remains is a poignant, wistful reminder of a city and institution that no longer exist quite as they once did.
Vogel gives each woman a distinct, colorful personality: Mae (Helmond), the madam, is a no-nonsense businesswoman gradually losing her faculties; Ursula (Van Patten) is set to take over the business from her, and is hyper-critical of Mae's decisions and managing of the clan's money; Vera (Burke) is the talkative, amiable, yet slightly flustered type; Lillian (Glynn) is ultra-glamorous; Edna (Lopez) is spicy, inventive, and prone to getting into trouble. That these very different women all have decades of history between them allows their clashes and arguments to generate a considerable amount of fun.
If the characters are robust enough to allow the play to work well as entertainment, it lacks the emotional impact necessary to also make it a moving drama. Vogel attempts to set the play up as something of a tragedy, with the women rejecting opportunities to move on with their lives, but exactly what keeps the women in "the life" is never made clear. And while the between-scene punctuation of six musical numbers - which are all delivered in tacky, yet smoky and sensual burlesque style - is right stylistically, it sheds very little new light on the women.
Even so, director David Esbjornson has firm control over the proceedings, keeping the dialogue peppy and funny and the scene and costume changes as smooth as a silk stocking. Set designer Narelle Sissons alternates between a seedy graffiti-covered wall and a fantasy New Orleans brothel with the help of a revolving stage; Elizabeth Hope Clancy's costumes range from conservatively whorish to Big Easy class. (The fine lighting is by James Vermeulen, the solid sound design by Darron L. West.) Musical director Bernard Corbett and choreographer Lisa Shriver help the women make the most out of the musical numbers.
In the end, though, the fine slate of actresses provides the best case for the show: Lopez's great belting of "Sugar in My Bowl"; Helmond's sternly maternal attitude toward her girls and the services they perform; Van Patten's well-meaning, yet fruitless, attempts to hang onto her own personal dreams and ambitions for the women; and Glynn's understated, unabashed elegance are all integral parts of the show. But no one makes quite the impression that Burke does: While demonstrating yet again why she's one of New York's finest comedic actresses - with the quirky voice and personality that seem to make every straight line a roof-raising laugh-getter - she also proves she's capable of great tenderness and compassion. She makes Vera a real woman, with feelings and aspirations that make her as worthy of dignity and respect as the most chic Manhattan socialite.
That point never comes through quite as clearly in the rest of the play, which makes The Oldest Profession uneven enough to prevent it from being an absolutely ideal treatment of this subject. Still, the play provides an excellent vehicle for five mature actresses capable of demonstrating exactly why decades of experience should never just be pushed under the carpet. The actresses chosen for this production don't let down the play - or the audience - for a single moment.
Signature Theatre Company