Five elderly prostitutes come to terms with their flings, finances and fate in Paula Vogel’s funny, racy, surprisingly touching 2004 comedy “The Oldest Profession,” excellently staged by the Dayton Theatre Guild under Greg Smith’s delicately smooth direction.
Vogel, who won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for her masterfully dark family drama “How I Learned to Drive,” vividly creates a world of tough love and hard knocks for her seasoned ladies of the night, transplanted from the seedy glamour of New Orleans’ red-light district to the competitive hustle and bustle of New York City’s Upper West Side. The action – transpiring on a park bench in the early 1980s – certainly appeals during moments of risqué chitchat, particularly when the women reminisce about the good old days in Storyville with a candor that would make Blanche DuBois blush, but the journey is unquestionably rooted in survival. After all, the ladies have finally realized their reliable clientele are “a dying breed.” Prostitution, no matter your personal feelings, is a business, and Vogel effectively advances the motivations of her colorful characters by molding the play into an eye-opening reflection on aging and security. The economic-driven tale also contains a topical relevance that’s hard to ignore, especially talk of cost-effective strategies in the midst of a debt crisis. As a result of addressing the stakes involved rather than suffocating the audience with a barrage of raunchy jokes, “The Oldest Profession” rises above mere entertainment to a deeper, poignant plateau.
Marcella Balin, Patty Bell, Jackie Engle, Ellen Finch and Marcia Nowik, humorously and provocatively clothed with assistance from Barbara Jorgensen, establish an absolutely endearing sisterhood that speaks volumes. This marvelously naughty, witty troupe also produces huge laughs based on sheer attitude and comedic timing alone. Engle, in a welcomed return to the Guild, oozes Southern gentility as Mae, the stern, no-nonsense madam trying to keep her bickering gals in line even as her health deteriorates. Bell and Finch are respectively delightful as Lillian and Edna, a very amiable duo. Nowik, outstanding in the Guild’s production of “Independence” two seasons ago, is terrifically sharp as the outspoken Ursula, whose forward-thinking suggestions perturb Mae. Balin, in a pleasant theatrical debut, exudes a natural earnestness as the meek yet chatty Vera, a heartbreaking sight in the final minutes.
Musical numbers, playfully choreographed by John Ueber, are also present offering a glimpse of the women in pure seduction mode. Nowik, attacking the spotlight like an older and wiser Sally Bowles, particularly sells Ursula’s contribution with fierce authoritative flair.
The Oldest Profession continues through September 11 at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave. Performances are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Act One: 50 minutes; Act Two: 60 minutes. Tickets are $11-$18. The play contains strong language and adult themes. For tickets or more information, call (937) 278-5993 or visit www.daytontheatreguild.org