There’s only so much updating that Born Yesterday, Garson Kanin’s hit 1946 farce about a mobster who comes to Washington and hires a journalist to tutor his former chorus-girl mistress, can bear. When the 1950 film version was remade in 1993 (a year whose eventually Broadway-bound movies included Groundhog Day and Dave), screenwriter Douglas McGrath relocated its tale of postwar influence-seeking to the present day. The Clinton-era stunt casting was fun—former Senate Watergate Committee counsel / future Senator Fred Dalton Thompson as a crooked senator; recently retired Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee as the Secretary of the Navy; famed Post columnist and Bradlee spouse Sally Quinn as the secretary’s wife—but even then, the premise seemed more than a little creaky. Audiences were meant to cheer because sexy, incurious Billie Dawn stands up to her controlling boyfriend by glomming on to her professor instead?
Well, yeah, sorta. But 1993 was a hundred years ago.
With his Chekhov rewrites and his many Shakespeares at the Folger Theatre and elsewhere, director Aaron Posner has built a career of making anachronistic material palatable. That’s why it’s such a swell surprise that his grand, satisfying, finger-wagging Born Yesterday at Ford’s Theatre barely even tries. Posner keeps the material grounded in the era to which the party currently in power in This Town wants desperately to return—the time just after World War II—and upholds the quaint notion that a grifter would have to bribe legislators rather than simply running for office himself. The problem of making its expired archetypal characters seem vibrant and real is one he’s outsourced to a trio of his most constant collaborators.
Kimberly Gilbert, Cody Nickell, and Eric Hissom, play (respectively) the chorus girl, Billie Dawn, her teacher, Paul Verrall, and the gangster’s lawyer, Ed Devery—a fallen public servant who douses his pangs of conscience in booze. And as Harry Brock, the bully who has come to Washington to bribe Senator Hedges (Todd Scofield, another Posner favorite), we have Ed Gero, a supersized presence who seems forever in danger of blowing scenic designer Daniel Lee Conway’s luxe two-story hotel suite into fine dust. Having spent a chunk of the last three years embodying the equally irritable if rather more expressive Antonin Scalia in The Originalist, Gero here seems to relish the novelty of playing a lout who isn’t based on a single, specific, real person.
As Billie, who grows more inquisitive and independent under Paul’s tutelage, Gilbert gives the show’s other swinging-for-the-fences comic performance. It’s a more mannered one than we’ve come to expect from her: She’s adopted a Marilyn Monroe (or Judy Holliday) breathy-baby voice and a habit of soft-shoeing in place to amuse herself when conversation alone won’t do it. She’s also the main beneficiary of costume designer Kelsey Hunt’s attention, sporting a wardrobe of ball gowns and pin-up girl lingerie and high-waisted palazzo pants beneath her curly blonde coif that oughta be sold alongside copies of Our American Cousin in the Ford’s gift shop. It’s an admirable variation for an actor who has only rarely ever looked like she’s acting, though it might’ve been interesting to see her temper these behaviors somewhat as Billie grows more assertive—or at any rate, goes from seeking Harry’s approval to seeking Paul’s.
Nickell played the dashing Septimus Hodge, a math teacher in awe of his brilliant pupil, opposite Hissom in Posner’s Folger production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia nine years ago, so we know he’s got a Sexy Prof mode in his toolbox. But as the journalist-turned-tutor Paul (and just what did Paul tell the editor who was expecting a profile of Brock, anyway?), he emphasizes the more priggish elements of his character’s personality, which makes his pairing with Bille feel more arbitrary than it should, and deepens our suspicion that Billie might be better off without either of these two clowns.
But these are minor gripes in a show so overstuffed with talent that it can afford to keep the likes of Naomi Jacobson, Evan Casey, and Matt Dewberry in the wings for most of its run time. Born Yesterday is a fetching antique whose obsolescence is a feature, not a bug.
To Oct. 21 at 511 10th St. NW. $25–$62. (202) 347-4833. fords.org.