The Washington Stage Guild has just opened a very pleasant production of what George Bernard Shaw called one of his "unpleasant" plays, "Mrs. Warren's Profession." By "unpleasant," Shaw meant challenging, iconoclastic and rude about conventional pieties. He knew which Establishment soft parts to hit: "Mrs. Warren's Profession" was banned in England for 30 years. Even today, when almost nothing causes hysteria unless it brings in violence or excremental references, this play -- polite, well-spoken, very British -- has a real kick to it. Society doesn't yet have a response to Shaw's inflammatory central arguments: that in a male-run, capitalist society, a woman's body is her property, to trade on, profit from or otherwise control, and that any action is justifiable if it's a way out of poverty.
The heroine of "Mrs. Warren's Profession," Vivie Warren, is one of those determinedly irritating Shavian women. Vivie is practical, managing and unemotional in a way her creator obviously finds ravishing; audiences may recoil somewhat from her showoffy heartlessness and complacent philistinism. Faced with the corruption of her mother's "profession" (running a string of brothels), the inadequacy of religion and aesthetics, and the shallowness of romantic love, Vivie reacts by becoming a self-employed workaholic. Though we're still likely to respond to Shaw's criticisms of society with recognition and agreement, his vision of the good life -- settling down to do nothing but work like a sexless little beaver -- is creepy. Sitting in her office in the final scene, smoking and scribbling, Vivie suggests a Virginia Slims ad gone wrong. Her modern counterparts probably aren't what Shaw would have wanted: the Sigourney Weaver character in "Working Girl" and Gordon Gekko.
Fortunately, the heart of the play isn't stern, puritanical Vivie but her unrepentently corrupt mother. When she dominates the action, "Mrs. Warren's Profession" is as great and unsettling as Shaw aimed for it to be. Born poor into a society that offers her almost no way to get ahead, Kitty Warren opts to do the wrong thing rather than suffer in honorable, miserable poverty. There are young men and women on the streets today who, whether they've articulated it or not, have made the same choice.
Director Michael Rothhaar and the actors bring out the play's strengths and check its weaknesses. Lynn Steinmetz is an unusually sympathetic Vivie. She gives the impression that she would have liked a life that allowed her to be gentle, that her choice of heartlessness has a cost. As her mother, handsome, throaty-voiced Nancy Linehan is blowzy and shrewd. Her vulgarity has a sensual side; she suggests something even more subversive than Shaw dared: that Mrs. Warren didn't become a prostitute only for practical reasons.
As usual in Shaw, the men are inadequate to the women's needs. As Vivie's smart, weak wooer, Jon Tindle -- long of nose, lean of body and swept-back of hair -- is a combination of a slimeball and a P.G. Wodehouse nit. He makes Frank both irresistibly likable and totally despicable: It's a characterization of almost Dickensian richness. Nick Olcott projects too much decency to be a convincing bully, but he blusters amusingly as Sir George Crofts. Bill Largess is appealingly solid and old-fashionedly English as the genteel aesthete Praed. As Frank's father, the Rev. Samuel Gardner, Bryan Cassidy looks perfect (he brings to mind Henry Gibson in one of his demented moods) but plays more broadly than he needs to. All of them are appointed beautifully, as are the women, in Bill Pucilowsky's Edwardian costumes.
In spite of nearly a century of popularity, familiarity and academic acceptance, Shaw still won't turn into a cultural chestnut. His plays remain the work of an Irish intellectual brawler, and even an imperfect one like "Mrs. Warren's Profession" still has a hell of a punch.
Mrs. Warren's Profession, by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Michael Rothhaar. Set, Matthew Cooper; lighting, Elaine Randolph; costumes, Bill Pucilowsky. With Lynn Steinmetz, Bill Largess, Nancy Linehan, Nick Olcott, Jon Tindle and Bryan Cassidy. At the Washington Stage Guild, 924 G St. NW, through Feb. 24.