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Except for two times when I lived close to busy pickup spots, I have never spent much time listening to prostitutes talk. Clearly, neither has Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel, who wrote an unwieldy and thoroughly unconvincing script for her five-character play The Oldest Profession – a work that purports to be the tragicomic saga of a quintet of septuagenarian "ladies of the life."

      The production, currently on tap at Theatre Downtown, takes place on a busy Manhattan street corner circa 1980, and follows the travails of five over-the-hill whores whose glory days as hard-working New Orleans strumpets are long gone. As their beauty and bank balances fade, they struggle to keep servicing the odd 80-year-old satyrs from the local retirement homes that populate their declining New York neighborhood. Before each character dies, she strips down to her Victoria Secret's best and warbles a bawdy tune while ascending the set's well-lit staircase to harlot heaven.

      Vogel supposedly intended her piece to be a study of the plight of working women abused by the vagaries of Reaganomics, but her cliché-ridden dialogue – punctuated by random political screeds and very unfunny punch lines – only emphasizes the lack of coherence in her overlong, unfocused and ultimately off-putting play. While the characters are an interesting mix, they never rise beyond the cartoonish, and often serve only as mouthpieces for Vogel's mushy and puerile philosophizing. ("This is America, where any girl can start in the alley and end up a madam!")

      Abetting the play's confusing tone is the sloppy direction of Douglas E. Huston, whose apparent lack of skill in blocking action or maintaining tempo is only superseded by his deficient casting savvy. Why does he populate his stage with women much younger than what the play calls for? (One of the whores appears to be at least 35 years too young for her part.) And why does he not insist that his miscast crew at least speak with the Louisiana accents of the fabled New Orleans district from whence they came?

      The five lead performers – Joan Gay as Vera, Gloria Duggan as Ursula, Sarah Benz Phillips as Lillian, Pat Barker as Mae and Genie Lindberg as Edna – struggle to make the play work, but to little avail. And even when an audience is filled with family and well-wishers who chortle at every cheap laugh, you know something is wrong when the three loudest guffaws follow a stomach-gas joke, a flatulence gag and a hemorrhoid-oriented visual.

      The Oldest Profession is not worth a trip to the red-light district. Stay at home and watch Cathouse on HBO if you really must listen to the chatter of the slatterns.

The Oldest Profession

Theatre Downtown

Through Aug. 28

(407) 841-0083

$15, $18

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