Stupidity and democracy don’t mix in Garson Kanin’s 'Born Yesterday' at the Asolo Rep.
The Asolo Rep’s concludes its “Washington trilogy” of political plays with Garson Kanin’s “Born Yesterday.” Superficially, it’s an Americanized update of “My Fair Lady.” In this case, a cultured writer teaches lessons of art, culture and language to a former showgirl; he sets her mind free, and falls in love with the results. Sure. But there’s more to it.
Kanin’s play unfolds in America’s post-WW II, boom years. Thuggish Harry Brock is a junkyard king who got rich off wartime scrap metal drives. Melting down the rusting war machines scattered across Europe is his new peacetime business model. But it’ll take an act of Congress to get the law out of his way. So, Harry installs his entourage in a four-star Washington hotel and goes shopping for senators. His underlings include Ed Devery (Eric Hissom), a shady, alcoholic lawyer; Eddie Brock (Jacob Sherburne), Harry’s brother, enforcer and errand boy; and Billie Dawn (Christina DeCicco), a bubbly, ex-chorus girl—more than girlfriend, less than wife. (Harry gives her stuff; Billie keeps him warm at night.) The kid’s no dope; she always beats the junk king at cards. But she sounds like Betty Boop, which gets on the nerves of the Beltway insiders that Harry’s wooing. Having never seen a hard-boiled detective movie, Harry hires a handsome young reporter to tutor her—Paul Verrall (Christopher Kelly). He wises Billie up to double negatives, the United States constitution, and her own complicity. She’s always blindly signing Harry’s legal papers. Turns out, she’s the real owner of most of the junkman’s assets—a convenient (and cuddly) liability cushion. Harry’s dummy assets are safe—just so long as Billie remains a dummy. Thanks to Paul, Billie gets wise. She stands up to Harry and refuses to sign. He slaps her down, like the fascist he is. But the times they are a changing. (Which the play explicitly tells you.)
Stripped of jokes, the play’s civics lessons have all the subtlety of a thumb in your eye. But Kanin stuffed his play with comedy. Hilarious lines soften serious points. This mix of laugh and lesson creates a seriously high level of difficulty for directors.
Play this material too broad, and it’s cartoony. Play it too heavy, and it’s preachy. Director Peter Amster simply plays it realistically. His finesse gets past types (the dumb blonde, the bully, etc) and makes you believe in individual characters.
DeCicco is outstanding as the loud, silly, funny, good-hearted, but not-so-dumb Bille. She’s an excellent physical comedian—and hilarious in a scene where she turns a game of gin into slow torture for Harry. “Dumb blonde” isn’t who she is; it’s a role she’s trapped in. Watching her character escape that trap is pure joy. Christopher Kelly is understated as Paul Verrall: the new love of Billie’s heart, a man of the mind and stand-in for the playwright. Norm Boucher’s Harry moves like an ex-prizefighter. Boucher brings a convincing physical intimidation to the role. Fists are part of his toolbox, why not? Harry thinks he’s a good guy, but he’s a bad guy. He’s a rude, crude, bellowing bully who makes all the other characters live in fear. His brother (Sherburne) is a single raw nerve—constantly flinching, expecting the next punch. As Senator Hedges, Don Walker shows the charisma that got his character elected. But he’s a folksy fraud—a Dishonest Abe. He’s a sell-out and he knows it, and his face occasionally shows it. Hissom is mordantly funny as Harry’s lawyer. He’s perpetually stewed on alcohol and self-hatred—constantly mumbling wisecracks that stop short of open rebellion.
Kanin’s laugh-a-minute civics lesson unfolds in an over-stuffed luxury hotel room from the late 1940s and the period costumes you’d expect to see at that time.
Not surprisingly, these evocative visual elements have a consistent look. Robert Perdizola designed both set and costumes.
It adds up to a lot of fun. But those civics lessons are never far away.
There’s one big lesson …
Babies are mindless and cute. Mindless adults aren’t so cute.
“Born Yesterday” takes a strong, anti-stupidity position. It’s a play about wising up. As Paul educates Billie, so Garson Kanin educates the audience. His motives seem more practical than altruistic.
As Paul puts it, “I want everybody to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.”
The second big lesson: Once you know, you’re responsible to act. Don’t close your eyes and pretend you don’t see. Do something.
The Harry Brock of this play gets away with his strong-arm tactics because nobody stands up to him. His brothers and sisters in the real world won’t give up without a fight, of course.
But giving them what they want is a very stupid idea.
IF YOU GO
“Born Yesterday” runs through April 15, at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org for more information.