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The Oldest Profession

- Backstage with the Playwrights

The Oldest Profession

Signature Theatre Company
The Peter Norton Space
555 West 42nd Street

By Paula Vogel
With Marylouise Burke, Carlin Glynn, Katherine Helmond, Priscilla Lopez, and Joyce Van Patten

Director: David Esbjornson
Music Director: Bernard Corbett
Set Design: Narelle Sissons
Costume Design: Elizabeth Hope Clancy
Lighting Design: James Vermeulen
Sound Design: Darron L. West
Hair & Wigs: Marty Kopulsky
Production Stage Manager: Alexis R. Prussack
Casting: Bernard Telsey Casting
Press: The Publicity Office
General Manager: Jodi Schoenbrun
Production Manager: Chris Moses
Artistic Associate: Beth Whitaker
Development: John Holden
Director of Marketing: Michelle Brandon
Choreographer: Lisa Shriver

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
October 7, 2004

What happens to prostitutes, when Reagan is about to be elected, the Upper West Side is turning “upscale”, when Mr. Zabar might not be able to rent low cost rooms for the Madam and her “girls”, and when these “girls” are pushing 70? They begin to die on or fall off a street bench, amidst graffiti and “homeless” food in the trash bin. They become transported to a New Orleans bordello, with a piano man in brim hat, and they sing with whips, garters, and corsets. And, in death, sing they do, belted out in sexy, brash fashion, in contrast to the increasingly matronly clothing and increasingly comfortable shoes of their existence in life. They may also recline, dead on a lounge in the distance, fanning themselves as in New Orleans, with clever sets by Narelle Sissons, that switch from a filthy West Side street to a dark, velvety bordello.

Marylouise Burke as Vera, Joyce Van Patten as Ursula, Carlin Glynn as Lillian, Katherine Helmond as Mae, the New Orleans Madam, and Priscilla Lopez as Edna are at once pathetic and passionate, poor and proud, resilient and raunchy, thrifty and thoughtful. Although this production is at times slow moving, with the element of silence indicative of unspoken feelings, that rarity of silent space was refreshing. This was a play of the early 80’s, when it was still OK to watch actors’ body language and not expect the constant din of chatter. The time David Esbjornson, the clever Director, allowed for the characters to sit and think also inspired the audience, as we watched the “sensitive prostitutes” meander in humorous or heart-rending conversations about the needs, health, habits, lives, diets, and fantasies of their “regular” and “new” clients.

All five characters had needs of their own, as well, and there were entertaining segments about their rotating roles, food fantasies, sexual precautions, sexual risks, aging fears, aging benefits, savings accounts, budgetary arguments, housing shortage, health emergencies, business strategies, and wakes and funerals, their clients’ and their own. There were misgivings, misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and miss-appropriations, but, in the end, these five ladies admired, respected, and cared for each other, while, one by one, they died off and sang and danced in the bordello other world. I will never look at a street bench quite the same again. Nor, will I pass Zabar’s without thinking of Mae, original Madam, with Vera, Ursula, Lillian, and Edna, all in an imaginary, threadbare nest, perhaps in the 70’s to early 80’s, with all their imaginary, happy men, who just might stop for a baguette and brie on their way home after “work”.

Paula Vogel has conceived a different work with a different theme and different mood. There were issues of social conscience, related to the management of the “oldest profession”, as well as to management of death, health care, housing, nutrition, sexual disease, professional relationships, personal relationships, and politics. There were also incredible sets, costumes (by Elizabeth Hope Clancy), lighting (by James Vermeulen), songs, and the piano man. Ms. Vogel is to be lauded for her insightfulness and imagination. And, Signature Theatre Company is to be lauded for this production.

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at