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"The Oldest Profession" and "The Homecoming": Two Views of Women and Work

Prostitution may not be the oldest profession, but it's certainly the most basic form of employment. The plight of the worker is, at some level, always the plight of somebody getting dicked over for a little bit of dough.

That, at least, seems to be the argument at the heart of The Oldest Profession, Paula Vogel's seriocomic meditation on the aging of whores. Written in 1981 and set on the eve of Ronald Reagan's presidential election, the play introduces us to five women of a certain age, all of whom have worked the New York City streets for five decades or more. If the Golden Girls had chosen prostitution over retirement and New York City over Miami, the result might have looked something like this, with Bea Arthur and pals eking out a steady stream of one-liners despite no health insurance, no retirement savings, and an endless succession of $10 tricks. At least Rue McClanahan would no longer be the token tramp.

As in any comic gal-pal scenario, all the women are recognizable types. Mae (Cecele Levinson), the madam, describes herself as "a businesswoman with the soul of a whore." Ursula (Patricia Silver), the group's resident Reaganite, imagines what gains might be achieved by introducing more efficiency into the girls' trysts. Edna (Linda Ayres-Frederick) is a risk-taker, Lillian (Tamar Cohn) is an actress at heart, and Vera (Lee Brady) is a lovably gabby ditz.

Over the course of 90 minutes, these women gripe about their clients and occasionally break into song, at least when they're not serving as mouthpieces for Vogel's heavy-handed politics. ("We've always been targeted in an election year," one complains, while another worries that Mayor Ed Koch might forcibly exile them to New Jersey until the second week of November.) But you're unlikely to attend the show for a discourse on Reagan-era anxieties or supply-side economics, and you're unlikely to remember it on those terms, either. Instead, you'll walk away relishing the lively interaction among these brassy women in director Evren Odcikin's breezy production.

Staged in the saloonlike studio at Brava, the show feels underrehearsed: on opening night, most of the women flubbed several lines. No one will confuse them with professional lounge singers. And the production's roughness does little to diminish the script's clumsier moments, especially its awkward stabs at sociopolitical allegory. But Vogel imbues her characters with such vitality, and Odcikin directs his actors with such obvious affection, that it's difficult to resist the show for long. It may just be the sweetest play you'll ever see about a prostitute's final days.

You'll find no such sweetness in Harold Pinter's brutal comedy The Homecoming, playing in a grimly effective production at American Conservatory Theater. Written in 1965, unnerving in its forcefulness even now, it concerns a family of predatory North London men who suddenly find themselves in the company of a striking woman. The father, Max (Jack Willis), enjoys making offhanded remarks that imply a long history of incest with his sons, while the middle brother, Lenny (Andrew Polk), playfully invokes his own history of brutalizing women for kicks. The youngest, Joey (Adam O'Byrne), is a demolition man by day and a boxer by night.

Into this atmosphere of barely suppressed violence and sexual rage walks Teddy (Anthony Fusco), a college professor who had escaped to America. With him is Ruth (René Augesen), his wife of six years and mother of their three sons. What happens next I won't reveal in detail, largely because it's such a pleasure to see Pinter follow the play's merciless internal logic. None of the characters behaves in a recognizably human way, yet all embrace their inhumanity with such conviction that it's somehow unsurprising when, at the play's turning point, Ruth gamely offers her body as a pass-around party favor.

Under the direction of Carey Perloff, this A.C.T. production is a fine and troubling exercise, but not as troubling as it could be. That's because none of the men achieves the level of sustained menace Pinter's men seem to require. In fact, it doesn't click until Ruth arrives. Augesen, a 10-year veteran of A.C.T.'s core acting company, brings a strange, almost mournful coyness to her sly performance. She's downright spooky in her calmness and composure, and the best reason to see the show. The second-best reason is Daniel Ostling's expansive set, which first struck me as too imposing, too roomy, for Pinter's tightly wound play. But the set's spatial distortions — especially its long, narrow staircase to the upper floor where Ruth entertains the first of her gentleman callers — end up enhancing the play's skewed beauty.

The Homecoming and The Oldest Profession conclude with enigmatic tableaux. In the former, Ruth, surrounded by a clan of wolfish men, takes her position at the center of this family, her final pose radiating a kind of profane serenity and grace. In the latter, Vogel's ladies circle one of their own, an otherwise solitary figure who sits, desolated, on a frigid park bench. For all the differences between these black comedies about a misunderstood profession, it's remarkable that both should end with a note of hushed reverence for these women, each of whom claims a spot at the well-traveled intersection between commerce and love.

 
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