Brava Theater’s The Oldest Profession….a delight.
Written by Paula Vogel
Directed by Evren Odcikin. Music by Angela Dwyer

It’s not the job you do, it’s how you do the job.

You can’t help but love them: five adorable old ladies dropping one-liners about the ups and downs (no pun intended) as proud members of the world’s oldest profession. The women, Linda Ayers-Frederic as Edna, Lee Brady as Vera, Tamar Cohn as Lillian, Patricia Silver as Ursula and 83 year old Cecele Levinson as Mae gather on a bench in the park to discuss their declining “situation”. The five of them deliver rapid fire puns like gun shots and you have to give them credit: they act their hearts out. But that is the problem with this production: they are all acting. Not one of them “get it.”

I loved what they were trying get across: pride in their work, loyalty to one another, determination to be independent and take care of themselves. But not one of these ladies convinced me that she had the faintest notion of what prostitution involved. Still, it was delightful to hear a generation we think of as on the last lap of life, talking about the joys of doing the elderly (although as a fellow septuagenarian, I take issue with that one). The punch lines are predictable, but funny still. We all know what age does to sexual performance. We all chuckle at hearing cracks about the back breaking effort it takes to turn three tricks before lunch at $10 a crack, especially when your arthritis is killing you. The political remarks are pure Vogel: “Who wants another Richard Nixon who bangs the piano instead of the First Lady” says Lillian.

The script has some wonderful moments, if we could but believe in the characters. Vogel explores the grim reality of getting too old to “cut the mustard” and the changing landscape of prostitution. The main theme of this play boils down to ”Being a whore just ain’t what it used to be and we aren’t the whores we used to be either….now how do we support ourselves?” This is the mantra of aging athletes, senile accountants, deteriorating fashion designers…indeed of us all when we realize that our jobs don’t suit our abilities any more. No one wants to let go of the profession that defines them and as Mae says, “When a woman can’t defend her territory or her girls, it’s time to get out of the Life.”

“The funniest comedy comes from pain and heart,” says director Even Odcikin. “It has to have an underneath layer for it to be truly funny.” Right; but we have to believe that the women on stage are really hurting, not just talking about it.

The elements that keep the production from being maudlin and repetitious are Angela Dwyer’s delightful roaring twenties score and Odcikin’s imaginative direction. He paces his characters beautifully and keeps them moving in interesting patterns so that the endless conversation about men who don’t pay up and expect more than they can give, job security and impending poverty never seem boring. The women eventually go to Whore Heaven, a place where bawdiness is “in” and all bodies are hot. Here again, I would have liked the costuming to be a bit braver, with more tassels, bells and feathers as each woman sings her swan song and ascends to a better place.

The ending however is pure genius and it is Odcikin’s unique take on the script. Edna, the last to go, sits on a park bench surrounded by her deceased co-workers eating a sandwich rescued from the dust bin. Would that the rest of the production could have managed to convey the heart of this play as beautifully and deeply as its final moment. Indeed, this production of The Oldest Profession is a hoot but it could be so much more. See it for the music, for the message and for the sheer joy of watching five women play at parts they could never have lived but might have loved if they had.

The Oldest Profession continues through April 9, 2011
Brava Theater, 2781 24th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Tickets $10-$25
Box Office 415 647 2822