Review: “Born Yesterday”

Sean M. Sullivan and Greg Matthew Anderson.

RECOMMENDED

Where: Remy Bumppo Theatre Company at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through April 30
Tickets: $42.50-$52.50
Phone: 773-404-7336

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

It’s tempting to say that Garson Kanin’s “Born Yesterday” proves that the more things change, the more they stay the same. However, that’s only partly true.

Written in the immediate wake of World War II, the play depicts corruption and venality in Washington, DC. Harry Brock, a wealthy and powerful junk dealer who has a senator in his pocket, storms into town and tries to get legislation pushed through that will free his business dealings from government controls (sound familiar?). He’s an uncouth bully who steamrolls over everyone from his alcoholic lawyer to his dumb blonde girlfriend, and there seems to be no stopping him.

But Kanin was arguably more optimistic than most of us are today about the power of an informed populace to effect positive change, and his cautionary tale really is about empowerment through education. It’s also a charming romantic comedy, so the person who learns about herself and the world, falls for her tutor, and puts her oppressor in this place is the blonde showgirl, Billie Dawn.

If all this rings a bell, you’re probably familiar with the 1950 film version directed by George Cukor and starring Broderick Crawford as Harry, Judy Holiday as Billie, and William Holden as her tutor, Paul Verrall. It’s a classic, but Remy Bumppo’s production, wisely and wittily directed by David Darlow, savvily makes the story its own.

Eliza Stoughton’s effervescent Billie is a young woman who’s fully aware of her sexual allure and uses it to her advantage. She knows Harry thinks she’s a bimbo but at first she doesn’t much care because he gives her everything she wants, or so she thinks. When he’s mean to her, she just sort of pouts and clams up, slyly knowing he’s bound to relent.

A blunt blend of brute force, staggering ego, and incredible ignorance that exceeds Billie’s (watch him try to puzzle out the concept of having your cake and eating it too), Sean M. Sullivan’s alternately hilarious and horrifying Harry does care, though. He’s afraid her inability to grasp Washington ways and penchant for saying the wrong thing will embarrass him and jeopardize his illegal plans. So he hires Verrall, a journalist who comes to interview him, to show her the ropes, over the objections of his lawyer, Ed Devery (Shawn Douglass), who thinks he should just marry the girl and make her respectable.

Greg Matthew Anderson’s nerdy Verrall is not the sort you’d peg as a match for Billie, but this makes her initial attempts to use her wiles on him as she has on other men most amusing. As her education proceeds, her way of impressing him shifts to showing off the knowledge she’s acquired, and she’s eager to ask questions and learn more.
Billie also begins to realize just how stupid and corrupt Harry is, and their competitive exchange of information about history and other subjects is very funny. On the other hand, when she refuses to automatically sign a raft of papers for the companies he’s put in her name to protect himself, he erupts with anger and becomes truly scary.

Sullivan’s Harry’s hair-trigger temper intimidates others around him, from his cousin-lackey-enforcer Eddie Brock (Drew Shirley) to Senator Hedges (an appropriately smarmy Brian Parry), the politician he thought he bought for $80,000. But Verrall doesn’t cave in even when threatened physically, and the newly emboldened Billie figures out how to turn the tables on the full-of-himself junk man who seems to know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

Remy Bumppo’s production benefits from the stylish staging. Scenic designer Grant Sabin’s luxury hotel suite, with the unseen bedrooms relegated to upstairs, is almost realistic enough to move into, and Izumi Inaba’s costumes cannily help define the characters. Jamie Karas’ period props, Michael Rourke’s lighting, and Christopher Kriz’s sound design complete a picture that makes “Born Yesterday” a good choice for today.