Monday, April 25, 2011

Born Yesterday - A Review

Posted by David

Certain plays, no matter when they were written, if properly presented can withstand the test of time.  While written of and for a certain time, they contain basic themes that continue to resonate.  Remount these works with a cast and crew of talented and focused individuals and the end result will transcend the period trappings that surround the piece.

How fortunate, then, that the classic comedy Born Yesterday by Garson Kanin, originally produced on Broadway in 1946, has been given such a stellar treatment at the Cort Theatre on West 48th Street.   Directed by Dough Hughes and starring Robert Sean Leonard, Jim Belushi and rising star Nina Arianda, the work shakes off any dust and shines like a family heirloom proudly passed down to the next generation.

Let me briefly turn things over to Wikipedia for a clear and concise summary of the plot:  "An uncouth, corrupt tycoon, Harry Brock, brings his showgirl mistress Billie Dawn with him to Washington, D.C.  When Billie's ignorance becomes a liability to Brock's business dealings, he hires a journalist, Paul Verrall, to educate his girlfriend.  In the process of learning, Billie Dawn realizes how corrupt her boyfriend is and begins interfering with his plans to bribe a Congressman into passing legislation that would allow Brock's business to make more money."  Yup, that's it in a nutshell.

What this production allows to shine through is the timeless story of what happens when someone, whether through ignorance or lack of opportunity, becomes enlightened and begins to see the world more clearly and, more importantly, how they themselves can make a difference.  The move from apathy and lack of concern to awareness and action can be profound.  And when it is dressed smartly in a comic setting, the end result is both powerful and immensely entertaining.

Mr. Hughes guides his talented cast with precision to draw out excellent performances from all involved.  At the center of the action is Ms. Arianda as Billie Dawn.  The blond bombshell with a heart of gold can be a tiresome stereotype and an actress runs the risk of making her two-dimensional in her incarnations of "before" and "after."  What Ms. Arianda does wonderfully is show the calculations going on in the mind of Billie as she travels from blissful and willful ignorance to mercenary inquiry and finally to altruistic accountability.  In the process she also demonstrates brilliant comic timing, a moving emotional journey and a luminous stage presence.

Ably complimenting her are her two competing male co-stars.  Robert Sean Leonard has always been an authentic and charming stage performer and he doesn't disappoint here.  His Paul Verrall is pure-hearted without being dull, pedantic or too pure.  He has moments of moral hesitation and his carefully crafted facade of journalistic impartiality occasionally wilts under attack from both feminine wiles and macho bluster.  He also has to shoulder the few moments of heavy-handed speechifying that live in the script, but he does so with a light enough touch that they don't land with too heavy a thud.

The real pleasant surprise here is Jim Belushi, better known as a broad comic performer from the sitcom television world.  His Harry Brock is all loud mouth and bulk as he attempts to bulldoze himself what he wants when  he wants it.  Belushi certainly has no trouble achieving a high volume performance, but if that was all he contributed, such a portrayal would wear thin and tedious.  What he is able to convey in moments of nuance are the flickers of uncertainty and neediness that trouble Harry and threaten his ruthless drive for profit and control.  He also adds nice flashes of remorse to a few of his outbursts when he fears he may have overstepped himself, or worse, failed to achieve the proper affect of intimidation.

Even better, these three are supported by such marvelous stage vets as Frank Wood as the well-oiled lawyer Ed Devery, Michael McGrath as Harry's put-upon brother Eddie, Terry Beaver as the Senator-for-sale Norval Hedges, Patricia Hodges as his tightly wound wife Mrs. Hedges, and Jennifer Regan as Helena the wry but sympathetic hotel maid.  The cast is rounded out with solid performances by Fred Arsenault, Danny Rutigliano, Bill Christ, Andrew Weems and Liv Rooth as various hotel employees.

The action all unfolds in a delightfully grand and gaudy hotel suite designed by John Lee Beatty with excellent period costumes by Catherine Zuber and effective lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski as well as sound design and original music by David Van Tieghem.

All in all, Born Yesterday is a delightful, hilarious and heartfelt production with excellent performances across the board.  While an accurate portrait of a certain time and place, it also resonates well with the contemporary world we live in.  And be sure not to miss a star turn by a rising star.

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