"No one calls me granny!" announces Mae, stomping triumphantly back onstage in her sensible shoes after knocking out a taunting streetwalker who’s horning in on her territory.
Mae is the elderly madam of a whorehouse for aging prostitutes, who cheer her on from a park bench where they gather regularly during their breaks.
In Paula Vogel’s “The Oldest Profession” onstage at Brava Theater, we watch this squabbling sisterhood, who’ve worked together for 50 years, weather the storm of economic and political changes in the country (beginning on the eve of Ronald Reagan’s election) over the course of presumably many years.
Unlike some of the playwright’s more familiar and edgy works, such as “How I Learned to Drive,” about incest, and “The Baltimore Waltz” about AIDS, not much happens in this softer, lighter play — except for life and, inevitably, death.
The ladies of the night arrived in New York years ago from New Orleans to set up shop: bossy, practical-minded Ursula; earthy Edna and her best friend, the sweetly naive and nattering Vera; flamboyant Lillian; and Mae, whose mind is starting to wander (“I’m just sayin’, old vessels leak,” mutters Ursula, who’s eager to take over operations).
Vogel follows the group’s fortunes as the economy rises and falls, putting political commentary in their mouths that sometimes feels forced.
More satisfying, and at times quite poignant, is the interplay among the women as they navigate their way through a career that parallels the trajectory of just about any labor job in America, minus the taxes and the social security. Their clients are aging and dying, just as they themselves are.
Evren Odcikin’s done a bang-up job of directing the comedy in Brava Theater’s tiny, upstairs second stage, using every patch of space available and offering a fully sensorial experience that includes Jacqui Martinez’ faux-Victorian-parlor set; Michelle Mulholland’s amusing, individualized costumes; and music director Angela Dwyer at the piano playing tunes during various interludes, as the women, one by one, sing, bump and grind their way to that alluring bordello in the beyond.
Despite an uneven ensemble, and a slightly tentative feeling on opening night, some of the acting shone: Patricia Silver’s hard-headed, glowering Ursula; Linda Ayres-Frederick’s self-confidently sensual Edna; and especially Lee Brady’s delicate, endearingly vulnerable Vera.
A little bit “Golden Girls,” a smidgen of over-the-hill “Sex and the City,” with a dollop of political asides tossed in, this is a charming, airy audience-pleaser — not realistic, just downright, irresistible fun.
Presented by Brava Theater
Where: 2781 24th St., San Francisco
When: 9 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays, plus 8 p.m. March 31 and April 7; closes April 9
Tickets: $10 to $25
Contact: (415) 647-2822, www.brava.org