Talented cast tell tale of knowledge overcoming ignorance
|Remy Bumppo Theatre presents|
Review by Catey Sullivan
After a rather uneventful first act, Born Yesterday picks up the steam of a runaway downhill freight train in the second act, powering through to a finale that feels downright prophetic. Garson Kanin’s drama unfolds in 1950s Washington D.C., but it’s peopled with startlingly familiar characters.
One in particular is someone we’ve seen before: Harry Brock is rich, loud, aggressively uneducated, lacking in impulse control and a first rate bully when he doesn’t get his way. At one point, he actually barks “you’re fired” to an employee who has had the temerity to cross him. You’d have to be living in a cave not to see the uncanny resemblance between Harry Brock and a certain Cheeto-hued resident of the Oval Office.
Directed by David Darlow and featuring an impeccable cast and top-tier production values, Remy Bumppo’s Born Yesterday is a terrifically satisfying piece of theater. Although to be sure, when Brock trips over his own staggering hubris, you may well find yourself filled with wistful wishfulness. In Kanin’s world, intelligence and integrity ultimately win out over loud-mouthed, selfish baboonery. Good guys finish first here, and you could argue that makes Born Yesterday something of a naïve fantasy as well as a drama. However you classify it, the show is mightily entertaining.
The plot centers on Brock’s less-than-refined girlfriend Billie Dawn (Eliza Stoughton), a bleached blonde bombshell with (to paraphrase from “Working Girl”) a bod for sin and a mind for comic cartoons. Billie isn’t innately dumb, but you’d never know it from the bubble-headed demeanor she initially presents. Sashaying around Brock’s budget-breaking hotel suite, her most taxing problem is finding the booze.
The plot involves Brock’s attempts to strong-arm lawmakers into passing a piece of legislation that would make his already lucrative business even more profitable. It doesn’t matter that Brock can’t tell a legislative bill from a bar bill. He knows what he wants, and he knows if he throws enough cash and intimidation around, he can make people give it to him.
Brock’s problem lies with Billie’s less than unrefined conversational skills. She’s an unedjimacated rube, and her lack of sophistication won’t play well with the people Brock is trying to finesse. So Brock hires reporter Paul Varrell (Greg Matthew Anderson) to give Billie a crash course in literature, art, current events, and the art of talking to hoity-toity senator’s wives. When Paul starts playing Pygmalion, Billie blossoms. Turns out she’s smart as a whip, and ferociously hungry for learning. From the works of Thomas Payne to the improper grammar of double negatives, Billie’s a quick and enthusiastic study.
True to the old adage, a little education proves a dangerous thing for Billie. It’s not long before she wises up to the fact that her boyfriend is a no-class lout with absolutely no respect for the legacy laid down by the Founding Fathers. Once the scales have fallen from her eyes, Billie starts exhibiting a mind of her own. By the time Brock gets around to firing the tutor, it’s too late. Together, Billie and Paul are a formidable team, fully capable of outsmarting goons, corrupt senators and high-priced lawyers.
The joy in Born Yesterday lies in watching Billie morph from blinkered bimbo to strong-minded citizen. When she starts out, she doesn’t care about anything much beyond her own world. Not only is she uninterested in civic involvement or socio–political issues, she couldn’t even tell you what the terms mean. Her evolution is a joy to behold.
Born Yesterday stars with a slow burn – for the almost leisurely first hour, Kanin takes his time establishing the characters and setting up the particulars of Harry’s dubiously legal business plan. Thanks to the hypersmart and equally funny dialogue, the pacing feels downright zippy.
Things really start popping post-intermission, and when they do, Born Yesterday goes from a nine to an 11 on the audience engagement scale. The denouement here is especially satisfying – no small feat since it’s also wholly predictable.
Kanin’s dialogue contains several passages that could easily turn into the sort of meaningless speechifying that stumping politicians can deliver in their sleep. Varrell gets most of these, orations that in lesser hands would sound like give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death nationalistic jingoism. That never happens here – not even close. When Anderson-as-Varrell gets going on what actually makes America great, it’s positively thrilling. Anderson brings a passion and an honesty to the discourse that serves as a reminder that good people have the power to combat troubled times.
Stoughton’s Billie Dawn is also marvelous. Billie is tremendously tricky to pull off – she’s a bubble-headed vixen on the outside, but even pre-tutoring, she’s no dizzy dame. It would be easy for the character to become the personification of a dumb blonde joke. That doesn’t happen here. When Billie first claps eyes on Varrell, there’s a flicker of a moment when it’s crystalline clear that she’s a woman with the best kind of wiles. Nobody is going to outsmart Billie or stand between her and what she wants. Moreover, Stoughton’s comic timing is sheer perfection.
As Harry Brock, Drew Shirley gets better and better as the drama progresses. At the outset, he seems like a gangly kid playing gangster dress-up. But by the time Brock unleashes the power of his fists and lets his vicious nature explode to the surface, he’s become a man of frightening temperament and power.
Grant Sabin’s set design nicely captures the interior of a luxury hotel suite, while Izumi Inaba’s 1950s costumes are period-perfect from the fussy hats sported by senator’s wives to the wife-beaters Brock lounges around in.
Throughout, Kanin’s dialogue is filled with memorable maxims. Among them, Paul’s assertion that “A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.” Born Yesterday gives audiences a world where the ignorant and the dangerous eventually fail. And that’s a world well worth visiting.
Born Yesterday continues through April 30th at Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln (map), with performances Wednesdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 2:30pm. Tickets are $47-$52, and are available by phone (773-404-7336) or online through Vendini.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at RemyBumppo.org. (Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Johnny Knight
Greg Matthew Anderson (Paul Verrall), Maggie Clennon Reberg (Mrs. Hedges, Helen), Shawn Douglass (Ed Devery), Brian Parry (Senator Hedges), Drew Schad (Assistant Manager, Barber), Drew Shirley (Eddie Brock), Eliza Stoughton (Billie Dawn), Sean Michael Sullivan (Harry Brock).
behind the scenes
David Darlow (director), Katherine Adams (stage manager), Grant Sabin (scenic design), Izumi Inaba (costume design), Michael Rourke (lighting design), Christopher Kriz (sound design), Jamie Karas (props design), Madison Delk (dramaturg), Jennifer Gregory (assistant stage manager), Johnny Knight (photos)
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