At the Remy Bumppo Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—“Born Yesterday” opened on Broadway in 1946 and became one of the biggest comedy hits of the decade. The Remy Bumppo Theatre is reviving the Garson Kanin play 70 years after its original premiere and the big question is, Does “Born Yesterday” hold up after the lapse of so much time? The answer, at least in the Remy Bumppo’s incisive production, is a total Yes.
“Born Yesterday” takes place in Washington D.C. shortly after the end of World War II. The central characters are Harry Brock and his mistress Billie Dawn. Brock is a boorish and thuggish millionaire who has made a fortune buying and selling junk. He rose from the New Jersey school of hard knocks as he repeatedly tells the other characters. Brock has taken free enterprise to its immoral limits, riding roughshod over anyone in his way through bribery and physical intimidation.
Billie Dawn is an ex chorus girl, outwardly empty headed but loaded with street smarts and the wiles of a woman happy to trade her looks and sex appeal for the security and creature comforts that Harry Brock’s money can buy. Brock is a louse but he’s a rich louse.
Brock is in Washington to swing a huge business deal that requires bribing his way through the government. He finds the uneducated and gauche Billie an embarrassment as he moves in the highest circles of Washington political society, so he hires Paul Verrall, a liberal journalist (he writes for “The New Republic”), to smooth Billie’s rough edges by getting her to read good books and use her dormant mind to think intelligent thoughts.
Predictably, a romantic spark develops between Verrall and Billie, enhanced by the journalist’s fervent liberal passion for democratic principles that opens new intellectual vistas for the previously non-reading young lady. To Verrall, Brock is a festering plague infecting American society. The playwright gives Verrall one patriotic and uplifting speech after another, all in the service of awakening Billie’s latent intelligence and opening her eyes to Harry’s criminal lust for power.
Photo Credit: Johnny Knight
The Broadway production launched the career of Judy Holiday as Billie Dawn and Holiday likely was responsible for the play’s long run. Her performance at the age of 23 is one of the Hall of Fame performances in American theater history (she won the 1950 Academy Award as best actress in the movie version of the play).
“Born Yesterday” is a solidly written comedy with plenty of laughs intermingled with its satire on the greed and corruption the play sees in our national political life. But “Born Yesterday” would come off as not much more than a liberal-leaning civics lesson without an actress who can handle Billie Dawn in the inimitable July Holiday comic manner. Fortunately, Remy Bumppo has access to just the right actress for the character in Eliza Stoughton, a member of the company ensemble.
Stoughton replicates the Holiday manner. There really isn’t any other way to approach the role. But Stoughton finds plenty of meat beneath the platinum blonde sexpot with her mishandling of the English language and her high pitched New York City twang. Stoughton gets her laughs honestly throughout the play. They emerge naturally and shtick-free from a personality the audience is led to underestimate early on. In the early scenes Stoughton’s Billie is content to be a gold digging bimbo with a sugar daddy that buys her fur coats. But there is a savvy intelligence beneath this lady’s ditzy demeanor that just needs nourishing, and Paul Verrall is the man to nourish it.
Stoughton inevitably steals the show but high honors must go to Sean Sullivan as the brutal Harry Brock. The character is usually played by an older man (Paul Douglas in the play and Broderick Crawford in the movie). Sullivan is a youngish Brock, slender but possessing a powerful physical presence to match his brutal manner. There is a barely suppressed savagery to the man who rides roughshod over better people with a moral compass so atrophied that he sees his corrupting influence as a birthright. Harry gets some sympathy points for his genuine affection for Billie but essentially he is a gangster and a predator.
Greg Matthew Anderson’s Paul Verrall manages to hold his own against the stronger roles of Billie and Brock, even though he is mostly the playwright’s spokesman for high mindedness and the American way. One may be skeptical that Paul and Billie can make a romantic go of it in the long run, but they have solid chemistry on the Remy Bumppo stage and that’s good enough for to get us through the two-hour play.
Photo Credit: Johnny Knight
The other major role in the narrative is Ed Devery, once a respected assistant attorney general in Washington who sold out to the Brock money and now advises the millionaire junkman on his illegal activities while he attempts to drown his guilt in booze. Shawn Douglas’s Devery is smooth and droll and inwardly bitter and ashamed. It’s a beautifully shaded performance that provides some nuance to the brash main characters. Brian Parry is excellent as a senator on the Brock graft payroll. Drew Shirley is fine as a Brock flunky and Maggie Clennon Reberg and Drew Shad fill out the cast nicely as employees forced to quietly endure Brock’s insults in the luxury Washington hotel where the foul man resides.
Director David Darlow does a superb job sustaining a sense of realism throughout the evening, seamlessly integrating the outsized characters of Billie and Brock into the narrative. Grant Sabin has designed the handsome single set hotel suite richly furnished by Jamie Karas’s props. Izumi Inaba is responsible for the period costumes. Michael Rourke designed the lighting and Christopher Kriz created the sound design.
“Born Yesterday” is an expert merging of comedy, satire, romance, and a cautionary tale of what can happen to a society if the people aren’t vigilant against the dangers of unscrupulous people allowed to corrupt the body politic. Some viewers may view the play as a topical message about the state of America’s political affairs today. I think that is a stretch but it does offer a chewy topic for post curtain discussion. Verrall’s call for eternal vigilance in preserving the American democratic way of life from bad guys polluting the democratic process may or may not have relevance to the current state of our national affairs. But everyone should agree that “Born Yesterday” is still a comedy that works for today’s viewers and Remy Bumppo has done it proud.
The production is a kind of followup to the theater’s splendid revival of the 1945 political drama “Both Your Houses” in 2014. Remy Bumppo clearly has a feeling for this kind of historical political theater. “State of the Union” (1946), another drama cut from the same political cloth, should be on the company’s radar for revival.
“Born Yesterday” runs through April 30 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 North Lincoln Avenue. Most performances are Wednesday (April 12 and 26) through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30. Tickets are $42.50 to $52.50. Call 773 404 7336 or visit www.RemyBumppo.org.
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.
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