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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Billie's memory of "Anything Goes" dates back to when she was a chorine in that musical, before the thuggish junkyard tycoon Harry Brock (John Belushi) made her his mistress. Arianda's Billie doesn't dance, but her singing that Porter song as she plays her hand during the gin game she and Harry play each night is as precisely timed as any show stopping dance number. Besides being a highlight of Garson Kanin's American twist on Shaw's Pygmalion, that scene illustrates why for Broadway newcomer Nina Arianda, Billie Dawn is as likely to be the role to make her a star, as it did Judy Holliday who first played Billie on stage and screen.
In case you're unfamiliar with the plot, a quick stop for a mini synopsis: A self-made, gangsterish millionaire businessman comes to Washington to bribe a senator into backing his latest and biggest deal. Tin-eared to his own cultural shortcomings, he hires a journalist who recently interviewed him to smarten up his "dumb broad," mistress so she'll better fit in with the socializing that's part of his D.C. maneuvers. It's a move that sabotages both his business and his domestic arrangement.
Given its age, Born Yesterday is likely to prompt the usual question as to whether it's dated. In a word, yes, it is dated.
After all, well made plays with lavish sets with a first act, that's more or less a set-up to introduce the basic situation before moving forward to a big climax that satisfyingly ties up all loose ends are not the stuff of contemporary, economy minded theater. Neither is a large cast, replete with minor character (imagine a modern play set in an apartment hotel complete with an assistant manager, three uniformed bellhops, a barber and a manicurist).
But there's dated in a bad way and dated in a good way. The bad kind of dated makes modern audiences wonder why it was a hit to begin with; case in point: the recent short-lived Off-Broadway revival of Cactus Flower.). The other side of this coin is a treasure well worth preserving for its still pungent dialogue and stellar performance opportunities — which brings us to the revival currently at the Cort Theatre.
As directed by Doug Hughes and with Nina Arianda's summa cum laude interpretation of ignoramus Billie Dawn, Kanin's Born Yesterday is as much fun as if born today. While it takes time to kick in (call that part of it's old-fashioned charm), the snappy dialogue and the serious political subtext are as relevant as ever. The price of bribing a politician like Senator Norval Hodges (Terry Beaver) has gone up and the shady business men like Brock are slicker and more educated today, but more pervasive than ever. A Billie Dawn willing to listen and learn is a welcome respite from shoot-from-the-hip Tea Partiers to remind us of what a working democracy should be.
Hughes doesn't attempt to update any of the dialogue; for example, when her Professor Higgins, the idealistic journalist Paul Verrall (Robert Sean Leonard), transforms Billie into an avid reader, she indulges her book buying spree at the long gone Brentano's, once my own favorite book store.
Unlike Professor Higgins, Verall is instantly smitten with Billie. Their romance is pure screwball comedy. Billie's transformation from self-declared bimbo ("I 'm stupid and I like it. . . I got everything I want. Two mink coats. Everything") to bookworm is a feel good fantasy.
Under Hughes' direction the play retains its morality flavored farcical humor. The more serious sexual and political undercurrents evolve into a battle won by the good guys, making for the happy ending we all wish could happen off stage.
As the original play and the movie were very much Judy Holliday's show, so this is Ms. Arianda's. We fall for her hook, line and sinker as quickly as Paul Verall does. She evokes the voice and vernacular and richly developed character made famous by Holliday, but her performance goes beyond replication. She invests Billie with her own priceless '30s and '40s showgirl-speak, her body language and gift for characterization.
Happily, even with this triumphant Billie, there's plenty of unstolen scenery left for her co-stars. Jim Belushi to give a no-holds barred, chill-inducing performance as the king of junk, who treats everyone around him like so much junk. He is the nattily dressed embodiment of the proverbial phrase "power corrupts." Robert Sean Leonard brings an easy charm, shades of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, to his Paul Verrall. Belushi and Lenoard nicely balance each other, as when the thin-skinned, humorless Brock is excluded from Paul and Billie's daily tutorial and Paul counters Brock's annoyed "Two hundred bucks a week and I can't even watch!" with "Take you on separately, Harry. Glad to. I've got a special course for backward millionaires."
The rest of the cast is fine. Though I've seen and admired Frank Wood often, I wasn't bowled over by his portrayal of Ed Devery, the lawyer who lost his way from a great career to having only the crass Brock as a client. As Billie comes to see Harry as less than the big man he thinks he is, so she disdains Devery for resorting to Scotch and sarcasm instead of standing up to Harry's browbeating. Two small roles that bear special mention are Patricia Hodges as the Senator's well-mannered wife and Jennifer Regan as Helen the maid Billie befriends who also happens to be Ms. Arianda's understudy.
Not to be overlooked in tallying this revival's assets are the elegant production values. John Lee Beatty's set is true to the script's detailed stage directions which call for "a masterpiece of offensive good taste, colorful and lush and rich". Catherine Zuber, besides providing a number of smashing outfits for Billie, has splendidly outfitted Belushi and Leonard and the supporting players.
Straight plays nowadays rarely last almost four years as the original Born Yesterday did (more details on that production at the end of the production notes below). But this topnotch revival has enough going for it to deserve a healthy run.