Prostitution may be the oldest profession; weekly drama criticism is one of the youngest. So I hoped that reviewing Paula Vogel’s The Oldest Profession would prove a blissful May-December wedding. It was not to be: This is not a play about five aging prostitutes but about a literary idea of hoary hookers.
We are given five women of such advanced age that we wonder whether even superannuated customers would not prefer the cruder young whores with whom these more dignified seniors, graduates of New Orleans’ fabled Storyville, have to bitterly contend. The mere idea that when the police closed down those venerable institutions, a madam and four of her girls would head for New York City seems somewhat literary. True, it allows Vogel the titillating notion that, when one of the old girls dies, she gets, thanks to a revolving stage, to perform one last risqué number in a heavenly Basin Street bordello, with a nimble “professor” on jazz piano and her predeceased colleagues watching or even accompanying her.
I daresay Vogel has no firsthand knowledge of the discourse and demeanor of whores, southern or from the Upper West Side (these five live above Zabar’s, but the time is the Reagan presidency, so don’t go looking now), and neither do I. But I am reasonably sure that these ladies of the night and day (clients round the clock even at retirement age) would not be discussing Once a Catholic, Marie of Romania (then, incidentally, called Rumania), the AARP, the “whore diaspora,” “a déclassé twat,” a “Harold and Maude situation,” “the whole Keynesian economy claptrap,” something “a bit outré,” and so on and on. The gals dying serially on the job may be a bit outré, but sporadic flashes of wit or insight do give the actresses chances to shine.
Only one whore is out of place: Marylouise Burke, whose trick voice and little-girl ways are beginning to wear thin even when she is less miscast. Carlin Glynn, Katherine Helmond, Joyce Van Patten, and Priscilla Lopez (a late replacement, and too young for her part) are all first-rate. I am less sure about David Esbjornson’s direction and the dragged-in songs, however nicely rendered.
A piece for four actresses is Michele Lowe’s String of Pearls, one of those “concept” plays in which an object travels from hand to hand, allowing its author to evoke its vastly diverse owners. Here it is a pearl necklace that not only goes from neck to more improbable neck, but also returns to where it started after some fantastic detours. It travels from East Coast to West Coast, from California to Paris, and from New York City to Garrison via a sea bass—to be sure, not around its neck but in its belly. Even the fabled tyrant, Polycrates of Samos, retrieved nothing bigger than his cast-off ring from a fish’s stomach.
But lots of things are fishy in this play, including a few of the 27 women whom the four actresses must portray. Though none of them is a prostitute, they tend to be rather artful constructs, even if their dialogue is, with a few exceptions, more believable than Vogel’s, and the plotting cannot be denied a certain ingenuity, labored as it may be. For this is the cleverness not of cognition, but of excogitation threaded on a string of episodes a bit too thick for credence. Still, this is authorial prestidigitation enjoyable in a circusy way.
It would be enjoyed more if it were easier to follow the relationships among the characters, and if the time frame and changing locales were made clearer, although this seems to be more a problem of the production than of the writing. Loy Arcenas’s pretty bits of abstract scenery, somewhat schematically shifted by the entering actors, could have used slide projections or title cards; more to the point, the performances could have been more pointed. Granted, it may be hard to find actresses adept enough to completely transform themselves half a dozen times at brief intervals, but surely one could have found more appealing ones. Ellen McLaughlin at least approximates what is needed; Mary Testa, a comedienne, is fine for the comic parts, but not for the others. Sharon Washington, a fidgety string bean of a woman, repeats herself flagrantly, and has the added burden of describing herself as white although being black. Least felicitous is Antoinette LaVecchia, given the more dashing parts without having so much dash as a hyphen.
My sense of the play’s believability was further dampened by the onstage female characters’ being mostly fine or even admirable, while the offstage male ones range from unsatisfactory to contemptible. Also by the greatest sexual happiness being found in the end in a lesbian relationship between a 74-year-old Saddle River upper-class widow and a middle-aged butch Nyack gravedigger—are there such relationships, even in Nyack? On top of which, the two share a love for the poetry of Sir Edward Dyer, whence they quote, “And love is love in beggars as in kings.” QED.
I am said to be a pretty good dissector of stillborn theater, but the Dutch Ivo van Hove’s production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler may beggar even my skill with the scalpel. Called “strangely enthralling” and “refreshingly daring” by the Times’s Charles Isherwood, it strikes me as an abject offense against theater, good taste, Ibsen, and intelligence. Van Hove, much favored by James C. Nicola and his New York Theatre Workshop, has made mincemeat there of O’Neill and Tennessee Williams among others, but this headless chicken of a Hedda could give vandalism a bad name.
It is so foul as to be funny, except when it is trying to be funny, at which times it becomes hair-raisingly inane. The set is some kind of loft whose walls seem to be made of giant white dominoes with some apertures labeled KITCHEN, ATTIC, and TRASH CHUTE; odd sticks of furniture and unmatched shoes scattered about; a half-wrecked piano and a TV set; and some 50 vases with flowers littering the floor. There is a couch that characters mostly use as a trampoline, as a place to make out, something to beat with their fists, or, in Tesman’s case, to pick one’s toes on. (Most of the main characters run around barefoot much of the time.) Conversations may be in whispers or, often, in demented shouting contests. Characters may talk pressed against each other or from vast distances across the near-empty stage, which Tesman describes as “our beautiful home, our dream house.” Yet because, supreme insult, Ibsen’s text is there more or less intact (translated by Christopher Hampton), the more effectively to be made a mockery of.
“Hard as it is for the avant-garde to be avant these days, theaters need not be converted into lunatic asylums.”
To spare embarrassment, I shall not name the actors. Almost everyone is way too young, and Lovborg sports a crew cut to defy Hedda’s “vine leaves in his hair.” Judge Brack twice runs around the stage holding Tesman and Lovborg in a simultaneous headlock as all three shriek riotously. In one of a plethora of rages, Hedda kicks over all those vases, tramples on all the flowers, then staples some of them at matching distances on each wall with a staple gun. She and some others tend to wallow on the floor with or without justifiable hysteria. Hedda is always in a pink slip, sometimes covered with a loose black robe, and generally unshod; Thea Elvsted enters with backpack and harlequin shoes, which she promptly sheds; she also grabs Tesman by his bare foot. Even poor Aunt Julia climbs on top of Tesman on that notorious couch. Hedda, often in verbal slow motion, will talk with her face against the wall; Berte, the maid, only hollers.
Tesman’s academic tomes seem to be movie magazines. Judge Brack enters munching on a sandwich, and soon throws himself into a push-up position, face in Hedda’s lap. Tesman joins company in his underpants, throwing his flip-flops skyward as he dresses, and Berte serves tea on the floor. Hedda hurls her shoes at Lovborg; he nearly pitches a hammer at her; other times, she and Thea alternate in his lap. Though Lovborg equitably throws one glass at each of them, only Thea gets tossed about the couch by her hair. Ghostly singing and piano riffs are heard from time to time; scenes end with Hedda downstage center staring at the audience, sometimes followed by her hideous cackle. Hard as it is for the avant-garde to be avant these days, theaters need not be converted into lunatic asylums.
What a relief to catch Kitty Carlisle Hart’s miraculous act at Feinstein’s at the Regency. Although she is 94, much of her vocal range is still dazzlingly there; the rest Hart compensates for with technique, profound feeling for the material, and consummate charm. She conveys as much with face and gesture as with voice in numbers extending from Jerome Kern to Stephen Sondheim. She fills in with delicious anecdotes about all these songwriters, whom she has known personally, so that the evening becomes a history of the American musical from inside out, joyously and artfully exuded from the heart of Hart.