Five aging hookers talking on a park bench—sounds like a comedy skit or the setup for a quick joke, but it’s actually the framework for prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel’s The Oldest Profession, now onstage at Venice Little Theatre’s Stage II.
There is some humor in Vogel’s play, for sure, as these five women face the realities of Reaganomics (the play is set in New York starting just before the election that put Reagan in the White House). They’re trying to sustain themselves in a changing world (they’ve all been in the biz for half a century), but their clientele is aging along with them, most of them living in a senior citizen residence. And with no Social Security benefits and the cost of housing in Manhattan, it’s a challenge to keep themselves in lipstick and high heels.
The structure of the play intersperses scenes set on the park bench with steamy tunes performed in the style of the Storyville (New Orleans) bordello where the girls all got their start, as each woman individually departs the stage—and life itself—for a better world in their version of heaven. That means it’s talky and static at times, and on opening night, at least, there was also some hesitation with lines (although in one case, that may have been part of the depiction of a woman sinking into dementia).
But The Oldest Profession is touching at times, too, as the cast portrays the relationships these women have with one another. There’s Mae, the madam trying to look out for them all (Maggi Taylor), Ursula, the hard-edged would-be business tycoon (Laurie Zimmerman), Lillian, the likeable one who’s first to go (Ruth Muller), fun-loving Edna (Peggy Martin), and the sweet but rather dim Vera (Lori Chase, too young for the part but nevertheless affecting). They’re joined by a piano man (Ray Goins) on those musical numbers, and although you might think you would groan at seeing women of a certain age in revealing costumes singing double entendres, it’s to their credit—and Vogel’s—that you don’t.
Even though the play runs just 90 minutes with no intermission, it’s a little draggy, especially at the beginning. By the end, however, we’ve grown to feel something for these women, and to miss them when they’re gone.
The Oldest Profession runs through April 7; call 488-1115 or go to venicestage.com.