BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
After a four-year absence, Cherry Jones returns to Broadway as a scarlet woman, literally, making her first appearance as the title figure of "Mrs. Warren's Profession" overdressed in a grand red gown and a black cartwheel hat, hair tinted auburn and her hard face a carefully-painted mask.
George Bernard Shaw believed he was revealing the capitalist truths behind prostitution in his once-shocking "unpleasant" 1893 drama, but these days "Mrs. Warren's Profession" registers as a cool study in self-delusion and hypocrisy at American Airlines Theater, where its revival opened Sunday.
Certainly the visuals in director Doug Hughes' production provide a false facade of respectability for the story's unsavory contents. The carefully clipped gardens and comely wood-paneled interior where three of the play's four scenes are set appear strangely perfect in Scott Pask's design, as do Catherine Zuber's pristine late-Victorian clothes, suggesting a glossy unreality that mirrors most of the characters' minds.
Even pragmatic Mrs. Warren, who's made a fortune running a chain of fancy brothels, harbors a fantasy. She believes she can share a future with her carefully-reared daughter, Vivie (Sally Hawkins), who for a while has no notion of what kind of business paid for her education. Little does Mrs. Warren realize that Vivie is an independent creature capable of rejecting everyone not measuring up to her rigid code.
Shaw crafted Vivie as a caricature of the 1890s' unsentimental "New Woman," and Hawkins' shrill, chill and utterly charmless acting does nothing to humanize her. Pitched at a quivering emotional high from the onset, too often Hawkins eats her words, unfortunately making Vivie's side of the Shavian debates nearly incomprehensible to viewers unfamiliar with the play.
(Shame on me for mentioning it, but between her overbite and finicky manner, Hawkins en extremis recalls Carol Burnett performing a send-up of teacup dramatics.)
So understanding the dubious life and soul of Mrs. Warren becomes the chief reason for seeing Hughes' disappointing production and Jones does the brazen old doll proudly. Slowly sauntering about in her ruddy finery, hands planted well back on her hips, looking very handsome indeed, Jones at times slyly suggests Mae West with a Lambeth accent.
Riveting in her crucial monologues, Jones turns wonderfully intense as Mrs. Warren describes her early options as a woman and why she pursued such a career. While Jones' portrayal tends to be a broad one, she proves to be highly entertaining, true both to the raffish character and her period and gives this disappointing show some much-needed vitality.
The dubious men in the ladies' lives are competently performed but register rather flatly. Mark Harelik's spruce, humorless baronet and Michael Siberry's sour clergyman are not as much fun as they might be and Adam Driver as Vivie's worthless beau Frank Gardner is scarcely anyone's dream lover. It is good to see Edward Hibbert occasionally wander into their dull midst as the kindly, beauty-loving artist Praed, looking and acting the nice English gentleman in every authentic way.
"Mrs. Warren's Profession" continues through Nov. 28 at American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St. Call (212) 719-1300 or visit www.roundabouttheatre.org.