In a nutshell: the swank hotel set is elegant, the performers work hard, and there are some cute moments. Born Yesterday by Garson Kanin was a huge hit on Broadway in the mid-20th century. But the truth of the matter is that this 60-year-old political satire is showing its age. It’s slow-paced and predictable. Some of the characters in Village Players’ new production, directed by Kevin Long, come off like mechanical mouthpieces.
I know TV has wrecked our attention spans. But there’s no turning back now, so when we encounter an old comedy like this one, it’s frustrating because it seems to take forever just to get the plot rolling. Kanin’s script never really builds up much comic impact.
Harry Brock, played by Kevin Bry, is a self-made junk dealer turned multimillionaire who believes money can buy anything. He’s a one-dimensional brute who comes to Washington, D.C., to buy a few senators and build up his postwar scrap iron empire. Bry works hard at being both vulgar and sympathetic, but the character is such a slimy scumbag, it’s hard to look at this jerk as anything but a loudmouth bully.
Serena Vesper gives a nuanced performance as brainless bimbo and ex-chorus girl Billie Dawn who is being “kept” by blowhard Harry. She’s prone to bursting into shrill renditions of “Anything Goes.”
“I’m stupid and I like it,” Billie says. “I’m happy.” But the ditzy blonde stereotype is turned inside out as Billie proves she’s dumb like a fox. She’s in control of every situation in which she finds herself. Vesper plays Billie with screwball finesse.
Harry Brock is so fiercely malevolent at times-tearing up books and smacking people-you can’t imagine whatever kept Billie with this monster for an entire evening, let alone for seven years. Domestic abuse and the subjugation of women are aspects of this so-called comedy that now come off as horrifying, not hilarious.
Dick Murphy plays a key legislator, a senator not above bribery. Betty Scott Smith plays his snooty wife.
Though Harry seems to care for his mistress, he often puts Billie down. They bicker over who is “more couth.” Trying to demonstrate her ignorance, Harry asks her what a peninsula is. She replies, “That new medicine.”
Though not the sharpest knife in the drawer himself, Harry Brock is embarrassed by Billie’s mental ineptitude. He thinks her dimness and lack of social graces are a liability to him in Washington. So he hires her a tutor.
Brad Dunn plays Paul Verrell, a good-looking, glasses-wearing liberal journalist at the New Republic whom Harry employs to smarten up Billie and give her poise and polish. Of course, during Billie’s Pygmalion-style mental makeover these two fall in love. What’s worse is that as she becomes more politically aware, she opens her eyes and resents the unethical, gangster-like Harry.
If you’re a fan of old movies, you’re already familiar with the film version of Born Yesterday, which put actress Judy Holliday on the map in the role of Billie Dawn. Many consider the picture a virtual national treasure. Up against three of the best performances in Hollywood history, Holliday pulled off an upset victory over Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard) as well as both Bette Davis and Anne Baxter (All About Eve) to win the Best Actress Oscar in the ruthlessly competitive year of 1950.
The opening performance of Village Players’ Born Yesterday was packed with a huge delegation of the Red Hat Society, the women’s social organization known for their purple dresses and red headgear that stresses “fun after fifty.” These Red Hatters seemed to be enjoying the matinee far more than I did.
Tom Viskocil plays Harry’s heavy-drinking, crooked attorney accomplice, helping spread cash around Capitol Hill. Josh Volkers is Harry’s hood-like “gofer” cousin.
Ideals ran high just after World War II, so the play gets pretty heavy-handed. The preachy finale, like the last reel of a Frank Capra movie, celebrates the blessings of democracy while implying we Americans were about to rid our government of corruption and big business influence. Yeah, right.
The expensive-looking, beautifully furnished Art Deco hotel suite was designed by Joseph H. Tokarz.
Mercifully, director Long doesn’t run the production in its original three-act format. There is only one intermission.
In its day, this comedy was considered slick and subversive. Now Born Yesterday simply comes across as dated, naïve, and cartoonish.