The Oldest Profession (Eclipse Theatre Company – Worthington, OH)

Photo: Greg Smith – (left to right) Kathy Sturm (Edna), Terry Sullivan (Lillian), Linda Browning (Mae), Tobi Gerber (Vera), and Linda Goodwin (Ursula)

Where does one begin when starting a new theatre company? Should one start with a modern classic by Tennessee Williams, something by Shaw or Ibsen, perhaps a well-known musical? Or how about opening with something off the beaten path, something interesting and fresh that the area has likely never seen before. Eclipse Theatre Company’s premiere production is of Paula Vogel’s The Oldest Profession, a quirky and entertaining show with plenty of laughter and heart, definitely a standard deviation from anything else currently being performed in or around Columbus.

 

Photo: Mel Buehl – (left to right) Linda Goodwin (Ursula), Terry Sullivan (Lillian), Tobi Gerber (Vera), Linda Browning (Mae), and Kathy Sturm (Edna)
 

The Oldest Profession is about a group of aging prostitutes struggling to remain relevant in New York, a city that is beginning to change at the dawn of the 1980s. These five women have been in “the life” for over fifty years, harkening back to the days of Prohibition in the late 1920s, which would put most of them in their seventies (or older). These women may look like quaint, blinged-out grandmas (whatever you do, don’t call them that!) with their overstuffed hair and painted faces, but they are rather refined ladies for hire with an ever dwindling clientele. These aren’t your typical streetwalkers turning tricks in alleys for drugs; these are women who want to bring joy to their gentlemen callers while supporting themselves. The changing economics of the time are reflected in how they live their lives and run their business, demonstrating how living in a city teetering on the brink of bankruptcy effects everyone. The program has a quaint glossary of terms printed on the back along with a short essay putting the story into historical context. I’m not sure anyone could misinterpret the meaning behind “dip his wick,” though some of the French euphemisms were helpful to know. Still, I don’t think “poontang” means hooker; I’m pretty sure it means any piece of female action one can get.

 

Photo: Greg Smith – (left to right) Kathy Sturm (Edna) and Linda Browning (Mae)
 
Standouts in the cast are Kathy Sturm as Edna, the big earner of the group with heels to match; Linda Goodwin as Ursula, the Republican hooker, as cold as one would expect; and Terry Sullivan as Lillian, the theatre cat, always up for a good time out among the footlights. Linda Browning as Mae, the madam, has some strong moments, particularly one in which she defends her turf against some new trade. Tobi Gerber as Vera, the somewhat dim and gullible member of the group, has one of the best lines in the piece: “I’m gonna scratch her snatch!” The actresses interact well with each other, and if there are a few pregnant pauses here and there or a few false starts with their line delivery, it all somehow works. These are elderly women the performers are playing after all, though I was surprised at how youthful they each appeared sans wig and heavy makeup after the performance.

 

Photo: Mel Buehl – (left to right) Linda Goodwin (Ursula), Terry Sullivan (Lillian), Tobi Gerber (Vera), and Kathy Sturm (Edna)
 
A nice element of the rather unconventional performance space Eclipse Theatre Company has secured is how intimate it all feels. The area is draped into a square, and there are only fifty seats located directly in front and to the left and right of the action. There isn’t a bad seat to be had, and the acoustics are perfect for allowing each word to be heard with little to no apparent amplification. Greg Smith’s set consists of a bench in front of a black iron gate bridged by stone pillars and streetlights with a mostly full trash bin off to the side and a concrete floor complete with some gum residue; what more is needed to illustrate the perimeter of a park? Mr. Smith also directs this piece, inserting an intermission about forty-five minutes into the play where it was designed to be performed in one continuous 105-minute stretch. The break occurs at a decent enough spot save for making the second act a quarter hour longer than the first, but it isn’t a problem. These ladies are worth the time.

 

Photo: Mel Buehl – (left to right) Linda Goodwin (Ursula), Terry Sullivan (Lillian), Tobi Gerber (Vera), and Linda Browning (Mae)
 

The Oldest Profession is laugh-out-loud funny as these feisty old women argue, debate, and talk business about things women a third of their age would probably be too embarrassed to discuss. It’s also terribly poignant as these women one by one pass on, the real heartbreak is discovering which will be the one who’s left behind. This is an R-rated show to be sure, but it isn’t as expletive-laden as one might expect. These are ladies, after all, the last vestiges of a bygone era that ended during the ’80s when Ronald Reagan was president and New York City began its transformation into the tourist-friendly (though arguably character-less) landmark it is today.

*** out of ****

The Oldest Profession continues through May 1st at 670 Lakeview Plaza Blvd, Suite F, Worthington (less than 30 minutes from downtown Columbus), and more information can be found at http://eclipsetheatrecompany.org/

   

   
  
 

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A Key to the Suite (1962) by John D. MacDonald

Somehow I always find myself returning to John D. MacDonald, and for good reason; I haven’t been disappointed by one of his novels yet. I was attracted to his work by the mysterious titles and lurid artwork, but shortly after reading my first MacDonald novel I sought out every other book he had written, always in vintage paperback form. I’ve been inching my way through them ever since, rationing them in a way, knowing that once I’ve made my way through all of them that there will be no more.

A Key to the Suite hails from 1962 and is about a man on a mission; Floyd Hubbard has been assigned to evaluate the performance of Jesse Mulaney, an upper level manager in the sales division of a company, while at a convention full of free flowing booze and girls. Mulaney’s a hack and knows it, and the writing is on the wall for his exit from the company. And so he has engaged a high-class prostitute, Cory Barlund, to seduce Hubbard and make a big, embarrassing scene in front of a lot of people to destroy his credibility in the hope that it could help save Mulaney’s job. But things don’t go as planned (do they ever?), and it all comes down to a showdown with the person who has the pivotal “key to the suite.”

 

back cover
 
I love a story with a scheming hooker, and Cory Barlund is one for the record books. She is at the convention posing as a reporter, but her striking beauty catches everyone’s eye. One of the few convention wives attending comments, “You know, that girl comes on slow. She builds. The more you look, the more you see. Floyd, only a woman could know what kind of a total effort that takes, all the time and thought and care.”

Cory is no pushover either, only agreeing to the framing job as a favor to her madam and after approving of Hubbard. When another person in on the scheme suggests an extra pay day for a tumble, she wryly replies, “Try me again in ten years. By then I may have lost the freedom of choice. That’s supposed to be the standard pattern, isn’t it?”

We learn more about Cory’s background and why she took up the trade, blaming it on a cheating former husband who infected her with syphilis while she was pregnant. She says that it “turned my baby into an idiot. It’s over five years old now. It will never speak or walk or recognize anything or anyone. I have one child, defective, institutionalized.” Her harsh words here go way beyond what I think any woman would ever say about her offspring; it’s a shocking stance though and definitely paints a picture of the kind of woman Hubbard is dealing with. “After the divorce I was trying in an amateur way to prove to every man in the world that I was more useful than every whore in Havana.” Mission accomplished, Cory!

  
No one describes women like John D. MacDonald, and here is an excerpt of when Hubbard is watching Cory out by the pool and she approaches him:

  
 
It may seem like I’ve given a lot away, but trust me when I state that there is a lot more where all of that came from. There are sex scenes written in such a stylish way that it is possible for one not in the know to read them and not be explicitly clear on what is going on! There are also a lot of characters for such a short book, and some have names that didn’t fit the gender I would’ve thought (Cass is a man, Cory is a woman, etc.), but the book is a real slice of corporate life right out of the “Mad Men” era. I found myself wanting to know more about the characters and hoping for the best as it sped on towards an inevitable and violent conclusion.

I was struck by how dated and yet contemporary the novel was, and in equal parts. The stereotypical “good old boys” who are woefully under qualified for positions but are appointed due to their chutzpah are still the types we see today in businesses (and in public office), but the women in the novel are nothing more than wives, whores, or eye candy. It’s a reflection of the time in which it was written, to be sure, and of the environment at the convention. Still, the novel is a quick and exciting read, with just the right amount of spice to keep it on the right side of the sleaze border.

**** out of ****

inside cover teaser