review: born yesterday

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Born Yesterday

By Garson Kanin
Directed by Doug Hughes
Featuring Jim Belushi, Robert Sean Leonard, Nina Arianda, Frank Wood
Court Theatre, 138 West 48th Street
production web site:  http://bornyesterdayonbroadway.com/

April 24, 2011 — ongoing

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
May 8, 2011

  • “This is a city of few secrets and much chat.” (Ed Devery)
  • “A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.” (Paul Verrall)
  • “Don’t mind him.  He’s always lived at the top of his voice.” (Ed Devery)
  • “She’s stupid too, in a refined sort of way.” (Billie on a Senator’s wife)
Jim Belushi and Nina Arianda. Image by Sara Krulwich, The New York Times.

The new revival of Garson Kanin‘s comedic riff on politics and pretense and power in 1946 Washington, DC provides many laughs, applause for new and returning talent on Broadway, and deeper appreciation for the nuanced requirements of this script, not all of which are met.  While watching this well costumed (design by Catherine Zuber) and framed (scenic design by John Lee Beatty) production of a script I know only through the 1950 movie of the 1946 original production capturing the enchanting career-making performance of Judy Holliday — I find myself often disengaged.  I still love the dialogue and story of a woman developing her mind and getting away from a bully.  But something is out of balance on stage here, and the love story isn’t felt or played — or the wrong love story is played.

Our heroine Billie (Nina Arianda) is daffy and warm and deeply intelligent — her journey this last realization. Most of the men in her life bluster and work on her and proclaim their own philosophies — sugar daddy Harry Brock (Jim Belushi) is a self-made libertarian man Billie has been living with for some years and tutor/love interest/”other guy” Paul Verrall (Robert Sean Leonard), hired by Harry to class Billie up for DC society, is a bit of a proletarian lefty. Only Ed Devery (Frank Wood), Harry’s legal advisor (once an assistant Attorney General of the U.S.) who drowns his moral qualms in too much drink and an outrageous salary, pushes Billie just to get his own job done and not to promote his own agenda.

What comes across most powerfully for me in this production is a reminder of the importance of the moral journeys of two characters (Billie who comes into her brain and Ed who comes to his moral senses), while the production plays up the love stories of two other characters (Harry and Paul) with Billie while it makes one of these characters more of a nice guy than the script intends.  As written by Kanin, Brock is a bully who loves Billie in his own gruff way but whose greed and simple view of the world can’t encompass a woman with an independent brain.  We are not meant to sympathize with him and his efforts to subvert electoral politics by the end of the play.  Kanin crafts Paul the journalist/writer to represent erudition and perhaps overly sentimental liberal sensibilities, and we’re meant to see a romantic spark and a happy resolution for Billie with him.  In this production our Harry is a bit too sweet and Brock a bit too bland.  In short, the edges of Billie’s world are less defined than is dramatically pleasing.  Arianada’s Bille is a combination of Lily Tomlin‘s Edith Ann (bouncing legs while seated on a couch during an early scene, sipping a cocktail, like a little girl drinking her after school milk), part vocal quality of Cyndi Lauper, part the facial dexterity and charm of Chloe Webb.  I am charmed by her little girl, and don’t quite believe the warmth and wonder of her mature woman who is growing into her intelligence.  What might be the delivery by Billie to Harry of hard-won truth comes across in this final scene as a petulant gotcha.

© Martha Wade Steketee (May 10, 2011)

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