Monday, May 30, 2011

Theater Review: Born Yesterday

“Can you guess the title of my favorite film?”  I asked at a dinner party several years ago.  One guest, a psychologist here in Bucks County, pondered the question for no longer than a few seconds before coming up with his conjecture: “Is it All About Eve?”  The fact that he was correct does not necessarily mean that the therapist possessed telepathic abilities. While the fellow talked about his garden all evening, I’d persistently steer the conversation toward theatrical performances, both past and present.  The extraordinarily fine film the fellow suggested is not only all about Eve but ostensively all about the Broadway theatre, an integral part of my cultural life.

All About Eve did indeed win the coveted prize for best motion picture in 1950. However, it was not Bette Davis, the star of the film, who received the Academy Award for what I believe to be her greatest screen performance. That year the best-actress trophy was given to Judy Holliday, a competitor, whose wonder-stricken, squeaky-voiced portrayal of Bille Dawn in Born Yesterday captivated movie audiences, as well as the critics. Before being cast for the film version, Holliday also starred in the original Broadway production, which enjoyed the longest run ever recorded at the Lyceum Theatre in New York.  And so, for once the Hollywood moguls were congratulated for having chosen someone for the movie who originated the role on stage instead of a “Hollywood name.” (I still shudder with disappointment whenever I recall how horrific the film version of Gypsy, arguably the greatest of all Broadway musicals, turned out when Rosalind Russell was cast in the lead instead of its Broadway star, Ethel Merman.)

John Lee Beatty’s set (skillfully lit by Peter Kaczorowski)) for the revival of Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday currently at New York’s Cort Theatre is a knockout: the luxurious, art deco Washington D.C. duplex penthouse suite in the city’s finest hotel. This time it is the stunningly hilarious Nina Arianda who plays Billie Dawn, a scatterbrained former show girl and mistress of a tycoon, Harry Brock (Jim Belushi), a self-proclaimed “junk man” who deals in scrap metal. We’re told that the big man, a racketeer, “ran a little junk yard into fifty million bucks, with no help from anyone or anything -- except WorldWar II.” The purpose of Harry’s visit to Washington is to bribe a senator (Terry Beaver) for political favor. When the meeting with the senator and his wife (Patricia Hodges) has ended, Harry realizes that something must be done to educate Billie. After all, when the senator’s wife laments that it’s “too bad the Supreme Court isn’t in session,” Billie asks,“What is it?”  However, Harry “can’t give her the brush” because, as he is reminded by his lawyer (Michael McGrath), technically “she owns more of you than you do.” It appears that it is Billie’s signature that is on a series of important documents. And, too, as the junk man confesses, “I’m nuts about ‘er.” 

 A decision is made to hire a Washington correspondent, Paul Verrall (Robert Sean Leonard), to cultivate and educate the girl. “He thinks I’m stupid,” Billie tells Paul. “So long as I know how to get what I want, that’s all I wanna know.” Finally, however, Billie admits that she’d “like to learn how to talk good.” And the lessons begin in earnest.  Eventually, however, Billie becomes frustrated by “all them books.” “It isn’t only books,” Paul argues, “Who said this? ‘The proper study of mankind is man.’” She’s now frustrated and claims that she’s forgotten. “Pope,” Paul reminds her. “The Pope?” she asks. “No not the Pope. Alexander Pope.”

It’s not long, however, before Paul is able to convince Billie that “the whole damn history of the world is the story of the struggle between the selfish and the unselfish.”  The outcome seems inevitable: Billie, who was labeled a “dumb broad” by her bad-mannered protector, is being transformed; she appears now to be more cheerfully motivated and content. And this prepares us for what is to come. When, for example, Paul proposes marriage, Billy responds, “You don’t love me. You just love my brain.”

By the play’s final curtain, truth and honesty will have prevailed. The good are rewarded and the crooked are financially punished. The entire cast (under the disciplined direction of Doug Hughes) is splendid; however, it is Nina Arianda who shines most brightly. It is she who makes us realize what it’s like to witness the birth of a star.

Born Yesterday is scheduled to close after the matinee performance on Sunday, July 31.