Don’t be concerned by the title of Paula Vogel’s play, “The Oldest Profession.” Yes, the story revolves around the lives of five aging prostitutes, but it focuses on the people, not their chosen occupation.
“It’s not so much about what they do, but how they help one another and look out for each other,” said Marva Ray, a member of the ensemble cast of five in the Albany Civic Theater production, opening Friday. “It’s about caring for people and taking care of them later in their lives. The play is really about camaraderie.”
Also opening on Friday will be “Sunday in the Park With George,” a Stephen Sondheim musical being produced by the Schenectady Civic Players. Duncan Morrison is directing and Matthew Moross and Molly McGrath play the two lead characters.
‘The Oldest Profession’
WHERE: Albany Civic Theater, 235 Second Ave., Albany
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through May 19
HOW MUCH: $15-$10
MORE INFO: 462-1297, www.albanycivictheater.org
Less familiar name
While most theater fans are plenty familiar with Sondheim’s work, Vogel might need a little introduction. She won an Obie for “The Baltimore Waltz” in 1992 and a Pulitzer Prize for “How I Learned to Drive” in 1997. Her Obie Award-winning play was about AIDS, and her Pulitzer Prize effort focused on incest and sexual abuse.
Both plays brought levity to the two serious pieces, and that’s also the case for “The Oldest Profession,” which had its off-Broadway premiere in New York City in 2004.
The story, according to the notes from the Signature Theater production in 2004, “is set in 1981. As Ronald Reagan enters the White House, five aging practitioners of the oldest profession are faced with a diminishing clientele, increased competition for their niche market, and aching joints.”
Making up the Albany Civic Theater cast along with Ray (as Ursula), are Juliet King as Vera, Joan Justice as Lillian, Margaret King as Mae and Andrea Valenti as Edna. Carol King, who reviews theater productions for The Gazette, is directing.
“It’s an ensemble cast, and the important element of the play is the fact that they’re all female with long-term relationships,” said Carol King. “I think female friendships are different than male friendships. Males are very transactional in their relationships, and women are interactional. Women really participate in each other’s lives in a way that men don’t.”
Ray, who also serves as a “spoken word artist” for various functions, said she was contacted by King to audition for the show.
“My first reaction when I heard they were doing this show was, ‘Good for them, they’re going to have a lot of fun,’ ” said Ray, who recently retired from her state job.
“Then I heard that Carol was interested in me reading for the part. I’ve done some things with her before and I guess she saw something in me that would lend itself to this character. I really liked the play when I read it, and there’s nothing graphic going on. It pales in comparison to some of the things our kids can see on TV these days.”
Meanwhile, at the Schenectady Civic Playhouse, Morrison and his cast and crew are putting their creative skills to the test with “Sunday in the Park With George,” Sondheim’s 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning collaboration with James Lapine, who wrote the book. Also the winner of eight Tony Awards, Sondheim wrote the lyrics to “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” and was the primary creative force that brought to life “Company,” “Follies,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Assassins” and “Into the Woods.”
‘Sunday in the Park With George’
WHERE: Schenectady Civic Playhouse, 12 S. Church St., Schenectady
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, May 9; 8 p.m. May 10-11; 2:30 p.m. May 12
HOW MUCH: $15
MORE INFO: 382-2081, www.civicplayers.org
“This is a play that can be taken in a lot of different directions by the two main characters, and George is not your standard musical comedy hero,” said Morrison. “There’s a lot of depth to the show and a lot to think about, and it can be a challenging animal. I think with Mr. Sondheim, in general, it’s always very rewarding just to listen to his music and lyrics. I saw it back when Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters did it on Broadway, and in its time it was very different.
“I think it’s a show that time has been kind to,” he said. “In its day it was novel, and some people may have been taken aback for a moment. But over time you find more and more people embracing Sondheim’s work. It’s become more accessible to people.”
The show’s Broadway debut had mixed reviews, and New York Times critic Frank Rich realized he had just seen something different and special.
“I do know . . . that Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Lapine have created an audacious, haunting and, in its own intensely personal way, touching work,” wrote Rich. “Even when it fails — as it does on occasion — ‘Sunday in the Park’ is setting the stage for even more sustained theatrical innovations yet to come.”
The show, which ran on Broadway for a year and a half, won two Tonys for design and lighting, and was nominated for Best Musical. It was inspired by the Georges Seurat painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” and in Act 1 a fictional Seurat comes to life, as do the characters in his painting. In Act 2 the play revolves around his great-grandson George, also an artist.
Moross, who also writes theater reviews for The Gazette, plays both George and Georges. McGrath portrays Dot in Act 1, Georges’ mistress, and in Act 2 she is Marie, Dot’s 98-year-old daughter. Among others making up the cast are Sue Cicarelli Caputo, Chris Foster, Kris Anderson, Joe Phillips and Karen Kolterman.
Another major element on stage is the famous painting by Seurat, who lived in France from 1859-1891.
“You buy the rights from the Chicago Art Institute, and that gives you limited access to a reproduction of the painting,” explained Morrison. “It’s about 7 by 10 feet, so we actually have this large physical painting for parts of the show, and we also use a digital projection in other segments.”
Valerie A. Lord is the musical director of the show, while Morrison also did the set design.