nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 27, 2011
If you have fond memories of the 1950 film Born Yesterday, which starred Judy Holliday, Broderick Crawford, and William Holden, do NOT expect them to be either renewed or threatened by anything that happens in the current Broadway revival. This latest in a seemingly endless succession on the New York stage of hollow visitations of familiar plays gets at very little of the heart, wit, or soul of Garson Kanin's 1946 smash hit. And, sadly, it reveals Kanin's cockeyed-optimist's view of America to have been anything but prescient: the world he longs for in this play—one where people make informed choices at the voting booth and do things because they're right rather than efficacious—seems the stuff of fairy tales instead of reality in 2011.
Born Yesterday tells the story of Billie Dawn, a former chorus girl who, for nine years, has been the mistress of a very rough-around-the-edges but also very wealthy and powerful junk magnate named Harry Brock. With World War II safely over, Harry is interested in harvesting all the scrap metal that's lying around Europe, and with the aid of his lawyer Ed Devery he's decided to try to buy a Senator or two to help him do so in the most lucrative manner possible. So Harry has arrived with a sizeable entourage in a pricey hotel suite in Washington, D.C., determined to become a player in the Nation's Capital. But while Harry's money speaks volumes with his intended targets, Billie's ignorance and indulgence seem to require some sprucing up. And so Harry decides to get Billie a teacher.
Unfortunately for him, the teacher he picks is Paul Verrall, a newspaper reporter who believes in all the things Harry does not, such as democracy meaning that all people get to decide on the laws (as opposed to just the rich people). Paul, smitten with the beautiful Billie, agrees wholeheartedly to educate her, and within a few months, he has her questioning pretty much everything about the life Harry has provided for her. Born Yesterday is a celebration of one woman's awakening and taking charge of her own life; it's a fine and inspiring tale that should feel resonant and significant in an era of Supreme Court decisions enabling corporations to make unlimited donations to political campaigns and state governments aggressively bullying unions to reduce their bargaining ability.
And don't get me wrong, I am sure that the octet of producers responsible for this revival have the best of intentions in bringing this play to Broadway at this particular moment. But director Doug Hughes and the name cast assembled have let them (and us) down badly. Hughes's staging is all about the play's surface: Jim Belushi delivers only Harry's rough edges and newcomer Nina Arianda conjures only Billie's vapid sexiness; there's nothing happening underneath either of these pivotal characterizations. Their chemistry is nil, too; the iconic card-playing scene that tops the play's first act feels like it's happening between two strangers.
Robert Sean Leonard has an idea about how to play Paul, I think, but he seems to have lost interest in it; the earnestness and passion that I always associate with him (from plays like Arcadia and The Invention of Love and many others) is absent here as Paul is reduced, mostly, to being Billie's love interest.
In the performances of Terry Beaver (as the Senator Harry is trying to purchase) and especially Frank Wood (as conflicted lawyer Ed Devery) we see a flicker of what this play can be, but their excellent work isn't enough to keep this revival of Born Yesterday from seeming like nothing more than a bunch of people going through the motions to present a play that doesn't seem to mean much personally to any of them. That's precisely the kind of cynicism that would have driven Paul Verrall—and, one imagines, Garson Kanin—crazy.