By Erin Crandell
Raunchy jokes are funnier if they are told by people of a certain age. Other things to keep in mind while you are watching The Oldest Profession: corsets are ageless and even prostitutes everntually wearing orthopedic shoes.
I want The Oldest Profession to be re-imagined as a sitcom. Five older sex workers, living in New York City in the 1980s. I see singing, and dancing, and stories about elderly lovers. The Golden Girls on HBO, but Betty White has been let loose and everyone is having a lot of sex.
I know that is pure fantasy, but sometimes that is the point of good theater. This show exists at the end of the era when regularly hiring a prostitute came with the Wall Street job and cigar club membership. The madames are giving way to pimps, and the landlords of the theater district aren’t as willing to look the other way on brothels. Playwright Paula Vogel tends to gloss over many of the significant problems associated with sex work—including sexually transmitted illnesses, assault, and drug abuse—and chooses to focus the play’s energy on the changing landscape of prostitution instead. The women are struggling to maintain a steady stream of income as their rent climbs and their clients’ age. It is clear that the group needs to change, but after fifty years in the business none of the women really know how.
Mae (Emily Morrison) is the madame of the group, and runs the business as a “businesswoman with the soul of a whore.” Ursula (Tricia McCauly) is her protégé and sparring partner; the “whore with the soul of a businesswoman.” The two of them spend most of the play arguing about how to gain more revenue. Ursula wants to embrace capitalism and expand beyond their ageing customer base into new territory, while Mae wants to maintain the customs that have kept the group above water for the past fifty years.
The other three women, Vera (Charlotte Akin), Edna (Desire DuBose), and Lillian (Diana Haberstick), have more interest in their cooking, theater, or shoes than the business itself. Their outlook on prostitution is still rosy, but the trajectory of their plots are obvious and the momentum is unstoppable. Not all the women have a happy ending, or experience anything close to success, but they have each other through the end.
The best part of this show is actors’ enthusiasm for the roles, which seeps through the play and makes you genuinely feel like you are watching five friends reminisce about the good ole’ days. Break it up into twenty-minute chunks and I think you have something that would be better than most sitcoms on TV.