While it doesn’t exactly feel like it was born yesterday, Garson Kanin’s 1946 play “Born Yesterday” certainly hasn’t lost its relevance or its entertainment value. The story of a “dumb blonde” who, with a dose of helpful education, becomes wise to the ways of Washington, D.C., the play remains a highly playable blend of light-but-not-quite-screwball comedy and anti-corruption high-mindedness. This elegant South Coast Repertory revival, directed by Warner Shook, finds the right tone of sober breeziness, and his fine cast deftly develops these characters, who start out as cartoons and then deepen.
Shook directed the play earlier in the year at ACT in Seattle, and he brings with him his leads from that production. He definitely got it right the first time, and their perfs have the polish that comes with previous practice; they wear their characters as easily as they do Frances Kenny’s glamorous period garb.
It’s a great collection of archetypes: There’s the uncouth junkman tycoon Harry Brock (Richard Ziman), who has arrived in D.C. to take care of some business (read: bribery); his longtime mistress, Billie Dawn (Jennifer Lyon), who, Harry decides, needs some finishing lessons to avoid embarrassing him among the senatorial crowd; and the idealistic journalist Paul Verrall (Paul Morgan Stetler), who takes the assignment to educate Billie mostly because he’s not immune to her shapely figure.
Shook and his players paint the characters in primary colors in the first act and then add richer hues in the second. Ziman’s Brock, for example, gets less blustery but more genuinely menacing as the character becomes darker and more abusive.
Lyon, in the role that won Judy Holliday an Oscar in George Cukor’s 1950 film version, ultimately carries the play. In addition to the right knowing voluptuousness, she invests Billie with the proper innocence and likable lack of pretension. As Billie starts gaining confidence in herself, Lyon demonstrates how airheadedness and ignorance are not the same thing as stupidity. She also smartly never allows the earnestness of the play to take prominence over the humor of her poor vocabulary.
This is especially important, because if taken too seriously “Born Yesterday” could be pretty depressing, laughable rather than funny. After all, at its heart is the story of how our government — represented in the play by Sen. Hedges (Hal Landon Jr.) — is for sale to the highest bidder.
The character who rings most contemporary is lawyer-lobbyist Ed Devery, played convincingly by South Coast Rep regular Richard Doyle. He’s a man of ample potential who used to work for the Justice Dept. and wrote a book about freedom but now makes lots of money as the middleman for bribes.
But he’s content at the end of “Born Yesterday.” He toasts the manufactured happy ending, in which corruption is rooted out and democracy reinforced, by the reading of a few books and some good intentions.
Shook, et al., understand this is wish-fulfillment fantasy, to be treated with the appropriate frothiness. They can’t let a hint of cynicism in or the play would suddenly age like Dorian Gray’s portrait.