First published in 1898, Mrs. Warren's Profession (Roundabout/American Airlines) has grown so familiar over the years that we tend to forget what a fuss Bernard Shaw's great play initially caused. England banned it publicly till 1925 (there was a private-club performance in 1902). In 1905, when the intrepid young American actor Arnold Daly attempted to produce it here, he and his entire company, including the ticket-taker and concessionaire, wound up in a police court, charged with conspiring to commit an act of public indecency.

1905's shocked reactions may seem fairly quaint today, when acts of public indecency are readily downloadable. Mrs. Warren conveys its modest delvings into indecency with near-total decorum, verbal and physical. But Shaw knew his target audience: The real "indecency" of his story is that society sanctions the transactions of Mrs. Warren (Cherry Jones) and her colleagues while pretending they don't exist. Partly a depiction of women's dilemma in a world where men rule, and partly a critique of the monetary basis of social relations, the play also studies, sharply, the nuances of that hypocrisy. Its spectrum of denial runs from Praed (Edward Hibbert), the aesthete who affects to know nothing about "that side" of Mrs. Warren's life, to her business partner, Sir George Crofts (Mark Harelik), who, when pressed, spills the dirt, not only on lowborn Mrs. Warren, but on all his upper-echelon pals. Mrs. Warren's chain of continental "hotels" staffed with willing young girls don't score so high on the indecency meter when you know that even the Archbishop of Canterbury is a slumlord.

On all three topics, Shaw's play remains current, despite its somewhat prim Victorian manners and its tidy Victorian construction. As a parable of unearned income under capitalism, it's certainly truer than ever. Its account of the choices young girls are forced to make has waned in the West, but girls from Shanghai to Somalia know all about it. As for our continuing hypocrisy over the matter of sex for money, why take my word on this when you can consult Eliot Spitzer?

Thy brothel's keeper: Sally Hawkins and Cherry Jones in Mrs. Warren's Profession
Joan Marcus
Thy brothel's keeper: Sally Hawkins and Cherry Jones in Mrs. Warren's Profession

Details

Mrs. Warren's Profession
By George Bernard Shaw
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org

The Pitmen Painters
By Lee Hall
MTC/Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
212-239-6200, manhattantheatreclub.org

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Only our way of seeing plays has altered since Shaw's time. 1905 audiences would have come in anticipating a "well-made" drame bourgeois in which a "wicked" woman's past would be unmasked. And they would expect to see it played in a style of slightly heightened realism, perhaps inching up toward melodrama at climaxes, and flecked throughout with the startling colloquial moments that 1890s reviewers gushed over as "touches of nature." ("Imagine a theatre," Shaw the critic grumbled, "where nature is represented solely by 'touches.' ")

We today lack Edwardian theatergoers' luck as well as their contextual awareness. We have no set expectations for plays or acting; modernism shattered them all decades ago. We barely have common social assumptions about what constitutes permissible representation, let alone how to rate its quality. Our audiences are apparently contented as long as a star or two can be recognized from some recent film or TV show. Unlike other natural resources, New York's supply of gifted, well-trained theater artists is, if anything, increasing, but so is the slapdash, unthinking manner in which we squander their opportunities.

Hints of such squandering loom early over Doug Hughes's bumpy, wayward production of Mrs. Warren's Profession: set designer Scott Pask's semi-abstract front curtain, stylistically remote from the traditional scenes it rises to reveal; David van Tieghem's tinkly-tinny, syncopated music, evoking hip '70s sitcoms. Shaw's script opens quietly, on a summer afternoon at a vacation cottage; Broadwayishly, Hughes starts in and sustains an urgent, panic-stricken tempo. First Praed, the play's best-mannered character, addresses a female stranger without removing his hat, and when Sally Hawkins, as Mrs. Warren's daughter, Vivie, commences speaking, all is nearly lost. Hughes and Hawkins must jointly be blamed for this dismaying performance. Priggish and harsh-faced (men are supposed to find Vivie attractive despite her blunt manner), Hawkins turns every speech from start to finish into a strangulated scream of suppressed angst.

Matters do improve, slightly. Hibbert eases into his role. Adam Driver gets the earnest melancholy, if not the romantic playfulness, of Vivie's would-be boyfriend, Frank. As his father, Michael Siberry's standard-issue stage clergyman at least shows you what the standard was. Harelik, though overly sedate for a rough-hewn "sporting gentleman," gets the role's emotional layers in place. And then, fortunately, greatness comes onstage, in the person of Cherry Jones, and what might have been severe disappointment dwindles to mere peripheral annoyance.

Even Jones suffers some directorial hindrances, like having to make her first entrance in a dress that virtually announces her profession. But she holds firm, sailing through the piece with spirit, playing discreetly past the eccentric limitations Hughes has imposed on everyone else. Mrs. Warren is not a refined lady. Shaw's choice for the role, in 1902, was the low-comedy star Fanny Brough; in the mid-'30s, Paramount approached him about buying the film rights for Mae West. Jones, hand on hip, sauntering good-humoredly through a rectory garden, suggests a West character with unexpected emotional depth; when she unpacks her bitter past to Vivie, a dark fierceness spills over the saucy surface. She makes every familiar moment in the role seem fresh. However misguided the surrounding performances, we can be grateful that Mrs. Warren has gained a new Cherry.

Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters (MTC/Friedman) also traffics in money and class issues, with a sweet-natured, low-temperature sincerity, telling the story of some 1930s British coal miners who, inspired by an adult-education art class, evolve briefly into an exciting school of painters themselves. Touching predictable bases, Hall tells his story jumpily, as if more anxious to declare his sentimental allegiance for the old-left dogmas inherent in it than to make it dramatically pertinent today. Despite the glibly drawn characters, the all-English ensemble, under Max Roberts's crisp direction, performs with stirring conviction, particularly Christopher Connel as the most gifted of the lot, Deka Walmsley as a perpetually grouchy union official, and Ian Kelly as the group's uneasy mentor.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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