Garson Kanin’s comedy Born Yesterday makes some political statements that seem punchier than I had expected. This timeless – or rather still-timely – show tells the story of shady, brutish businessman Harry Brock (Jim Belushi) out to work Washington for everything it has to offer, and his dumb blonde girlfriend Billie Dawn (major discovery Nina Arianda).
Turns out she’s not so dumb, making more trouble than Brock ever bargained for. Unfortunately, the corruption in American politics that Kanin is out to skewer in the play is still very alive, and so the the play still has plenty of satiric bite in addition to its more straightforward comic pleasures.
I’ll add my voice to the critical chorus: Arianda’s take on Dawn is brilliant, totally honoring what Judy Holliday famously did with the role in the film, while adding squawky Ozone Park realness that sounds like it could be coming directly from Cyndi Lauper, and a gleefulness that is all her own. Jim Belushi is an ideal Brock, giving both his thuggishness and childlike vulnerability full play.
Robert Sean Leonard plays Paul Verrall, the reporter who shepherds Billie’s intellectual awakening. He plays Verrall as a shy, bemused milquetoast – exactly what he appears to be on the page. It’s a valid, if decidedly literal, take on the role, just not a very exciting one, and not one that can stand up to Arianda and Belushi’s larger than life performances. The brooding that William Holden brought to the role in the film might play a bit corny on a 2011 stage, but Verrall needs his own kind of aggressiveness to really register, and Leonard doesn’t bring that.
Frank Woods is marvelous as Ed Devery, Brock’s lawyer. There is some sense that he’s still playing Roy Cohn, whom he portrayed so well in last fall’s Angels in America – but that’s not a bad thing, it’s actually a really fascinating choice that brings colorful grit and groundedness to what could be a minor comic role. Doug Hughes has done a first-rate job of casting this fine revival, and has done this wonderful, smart comedy a great service.
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