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As much as the world loves a smart dumb-blonde joke—and Billie Dawn is about as smart a dumb-blonde joke as has ever trod a stage—it would sure be heartening if the first thing to grab Arena Stage audiences about Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday were not the adorably bubble-headed heroine but the playwright’s prescience. Not gonna happen, but it’d still be nice.
For in this, his first stage comedy
—written in 1945, as Americans headed blithely into an era of postwar prosperity—Kanin didn’t just pen a Pygmalion tale about a bimbo who smartens up, he also took aim at profiteering neo-con bullies who hire prominent former government officials to bribe senators, subvert democratic institutions, and undermine federal regulations designed to protect the public from economic rape by multinational corporations.
Although this plot line was important enough to Kanin that he devoted most of his final act to articulating its political ramifications, the play’s first Broadway audiences seem to have accepted it as mere background, a simple statement of the status quo. The New York Times noted that “probably, Mr. Kanin is not a deep political thinker,” and went on to praise Judy Holliday (who stepped into the leading role just three days before the opening) as “quite wonderful.” Other critics concurred, headlines rang variations on “A Star Is Born (Yesterday),” and from that moment, the politics of the play have taken a back seat to Billie.
Which perhaps makes sense. Clever as Kanin was about crafting a post– World War II storyline, there’s an undeniable “’twas always thus” air to his observations. In fact, there may not have been a time in the last six decades when the plot would not have seemed to be commenting on some current scandal or other. The last time the show played D.C.—with Madeline Kahn as Billie and Ed Asner as her thuggish boyfriend—post-Irangate audiences couldn’t help seeing parallels to Ollie North’s shenanigans. This time, intermission crowds will doubtless be heard mumbling about Halliburton.
But they’ll also be buzzing about Suli Holum, the brightest dim bulb to light up Arena Stage in quite a few seasons. As the gin-rummy-playing, dazed-but-dazzling ex-chorine (“I wasn’t just in the chorus, y’know; I had lines”) who will soon turn Washington on its collective ear, she arrives in Suite 67D of D.C.’s classiest hotel (plushly realized at Arena by designer Kate Edmunds) looking like a slightly demented kewpie doll in an outfit so form-fitting it seems to have squeezed every thought in her head right out her ears.
“I’m stupid, and I like it,” she will later tell someone. But her roughneck capitalist boyfriend, junkyard owner Harry Brock (Jonathan Fried), worries that she’ll be a liability to his world-conquering if she can’t carry on dinner conversations with the wives of the congressmen he plans to buy. So, while he’s busy working with his lawyer (Rick Foucheux) to eviscerate government regulations, he hires New Republic scribe Paul Verrall (Michael Bakkensen) to tutor her in the ways of Washington. Verrall’s not a fan of Brock’s brand of unfettered capitalism, and he is a fan of Billie’s brand of feminine pulchritude, and therein hangs the tale.
In Kanin’s world, all that need happen for an illegal scheme to come crashing down is for the bimbo at its center to be put wise to it, and that’s pretty much what happens in Born Yesterday. In a contemporary comedy, it would happen more economically
—Kanin is still brushing in character traits as the lights dim for intermission—but rather than racing through the play’s exposition on the way to the second half’s smart-aleck comeuppances, Kyle Donnelly’s staging luxuriates in the process of storytelling. She gives an audience time to take in the white sweat socks Brock wears with his dark suits, as well as his adolescent slouch and hips-thrust-forward gait. Once you catch the inner 12-year-old who keeps surfacing in him and realize he’s just a schoolyard bully who covers up his insecurities by bellowing at the top of his lungs, he’s a lot easier to take.
Bakkensen’s instantly smitten, handsome-with-or-without-glasses crusading journalist, Terrence Currier’s corrupt politician, Nancy Robinette’s pretentious political wife, Foucheux’s conflicted lawyer, even Susan Lynskey’s plucky chambermaid all have a chance to register in similarly leisurely ways. And the celebrated, all but silent gin game that offers the evening’s first evidence that Billie is not as dumb as she looks is given its full due. Guests leave the hotel suite, Billie and Brock glare balefully at each other for a long moment, and then, at about the moment you figure they’ll either scream or smooch, they snap into a brisk well-practiced ballet of feints, parries, chair-aligning, card-shuffling, and hand-arranging, which ends inevitably—and repeatedly—in Billie’s triumphant cry of “Gin!” Yes, the play takes its own sweet time getting started—and at Arena, a sweet time it turns out to be.
The author does go on a bit with the civics lessons that make up the play’s second half. But when Verrall gets too wound up in anti-corruption rhetoric, Billie’s always there to deflate the seriousness (“the worst swindle since the Teapot!”), and anyway, the play is so light it might float away entirely if not for the political ballast.
There are minor staging infelicities. The hotel staff (attired by Michael Krass in garishly contrasting purple and green) are a little too self-consciously choreographed. So is the usually harrowing slap with which a frustrated Brock finally alienates both Billie and the audience. Delivered in an in-the-round setting, it’s all too clearly not landing. But these are quibbles in an evening that is, for the most part, as appealing as its leading lady.CP