Just as no man is an island, so no play can escape the times in which it is mounted. If Garson Kanin was thinking about post-World War II America when he wrote his 1946 comedy Born Yesterday (★★★), there is no way to watch it now without thinking about our current state of affairs.
How it resonates with a D.C. audience — and the tourists who often take in a show at Ford’s Theatre — will depend on one’s view of our topsy-turvy world. The sunnily disposed will no doubt see it as an especially cute reaffirmation of our national values. The more miserable may find it a tad jarring.
The inescapable fact is that Kanin sticks a great, big vulgar tycoon right in the middle of his play. And not just any old brute — this repulsive alpha has come to Washington D.C. to bully and buy his way into power. He steamrolls everyone left and right because D.C.’s cultivated elite never got the manual on how to handle a guy who just doesn’t care. They stand around stunned as he yells and swings his elbows, throwing money at everybody and everything until he gets his way. Sound familiar?
There is no doubt this resonance gives the play an uneasy pall. But if you can gird your loins, it’s worth the effort, epecially since director Aaron Posner brings his usual wit and acumen to the charming classic, staying true to Born Yesterday‘s screwball roots and ensuring it almost always pays off. A not-quite-Pygmalion storyline, the action centers around scrapyard millionaire Harry Brock’s desire to turn his ex-showgirl moll, Billie Dawn, into a more respectable companion for his D.C. adventure. While Billie may never gentrify, she does end up waking to her boyfriend’s shortcomings and her own value as a voting citizen.
If it all sounds a bit hokey, rest assured that Kanin isn’t out to give all that much of a civics lesson. The pace is quick, the irony high, the jokes fun. If the rhythm suffers a bit from the physics of Ford’s Theatre and a couple of Kanin’s more downbeat interludes, one has to remember that live theater is never going to swing quite like an old movie with its tight shots, close-ups and fast edits.
A few of the performances here are so clever they defy the limits and bring exactly the kind of warmth, humor, and wit this kind of entertainment requires. Top of the list is the extraordinarily versatile Eric Hissom as jaded lawyer Ed Devery. Drinking to dull his self-loathing at serving his unsavory boss, Devery is point man for the cynical one-liners and a modicum of reflection. Hissom captures this vibe with perfect comic timing, a bottomless array of amusing facial expressions and the subtlest of craft — he is reason alone to see the play.
Another standout here is Cody Nickell as Paul Verrall, the savvy reporter brought in to tutor Billie. Verrall could easily have been something of a stuffed shirt, but Nickell utterly gets it, bringing a sardonic warmth to this stand-up guy and some real personality. If his attraction to Billie is too condescending for modern times, it’s best viewed as quaint — as much a relic as the corsets and shoe shines.
And then there is Harry Brock. Caught between a rock and a hard place in delivering this Trump prototype, Edward Gero really has no choice but to play it as large as Kanin obviously intended. If the man keeps veering into a manifestation of our president, it isn’t anyone’s fault and Gero wisely soldiers on. But as much skill and charisma as Gero brings to this Brock, he doesn’t quite seem comfortable in his skin. It feels ever-so-slightly forced and that blurs the lines between the comic and the menacing.
Also close but not quite on the money is Kimberly Gilbert’s Billie. Bursting with warmth and sparkle, Gilbert plays her with all kinds of confidence. But she is caught treading a delicate line: Billie is writ too large and comic to play straight, but if she falls to caricature, she will lose our sympathy. Gilbert manages the balancing act, but like Gero’s Brock, she ends up never being quite funny or sassy enough — a rarity for an actor with Gilbert’s innate comic timing. And if Billie certainly knows how to flash a shapely ankle, the chemistry between her and the men in her life never quite convinces.
Still, Born Yesterday is also a play for smaller, colorful roles and Naomi Jacobson makes for a comical maid and a convincingly uptight Washington matron. As thug-with-a-heart Eddie Brock, Evan Casey is another master of the silently comical facial expression. Together, the ensemble makes wonderful use of Daniel Lee Conway’s wonderful confection of a set.
All in, this is a cute and clever romp with a few things to say about democracy in politics and relationships alike. If you can get past the elephant in the room, it’s an evening of genuinely good, old-fashioned fun.
Born Yesterday runs to October 21 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Tickets are $25 to $62. Call 888-616-0270 or visit fords.org.
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