“Is there anything sadder than a whore?” asked Wedekind’s Lulu, who didn’t become one till shortly before her death. The five aging ladies of the night in Paula Vogel’s circular, and slightly loopy, comedy The Oldest Profession bear out Lulu’s worst suspicions. Vogel means to provide both laughter and a mordant economic parable, and intermittently she gives good chunks of both. But her story of five escapees from the shuttering of New Orleans’ Storyville in 1918, who wind up as SRO beldames in the fiscal miseries of Reagan-era New York, their list of johns confined to the local old-age homes, is both too tenuously fanciful and too elliptically told to get much energy going in either direction.
Vogel means us to admire these working girls’ pluck, and to ponder their contrasting views of how their commodity should be peddled, as the frailties of age pick them off one by one. But the improbabilities with which the play’s riddled, plus the playful convention of having each working girl, as she dies, enter the great whorehouse in the sky with a shimmy and a lewd song, weigh the action down till it’s squashed into near nonexistence. As a result, neither our empathy for the women nor the drama of their survival can build to any intensity. What Vogel’s script does offer, however, are lavish opportunities for five golden-age working girls in the less spiritually demeaning field of acting, and the cast of David Esbjornson’s somewhat ramshackle production seizes every chance knowingly and joyfully, with Katherine Helmond and Marylouise Burke reveling in the best of Vogel’s material, and Priscilla Lopez (a late arrival to the cast, and only golden-age in musical-comedy years), bringing off what amounts to the lead tragic role with a power that periodically invests Vogel’s gimmicky game with real passion.