Oh, how we yearn for simpler times, when the influence of a crooked U.S. senator could be purchased for a reasonable sum and — but wait, that hasn’t changed, has it? No siree, which is why Garson Kanin’s “Born Yesterday” remains an enduring delight, especially in the capable hands of Arena Stage.
After several years seeking to wrest the rights to Kanin’s 60-year-old chestnut from the late playwright’s estate, Arena makes the most of this opportunity with a sassy and pointed production. Director Kyle Donnelly has assembled a topnotch cast that wrings every ounce from Kanin’s spirited tale of innocence and greed in the nation’s capital.
The production’s assets begin with Suli Hollum as Billie Dawn, for whom a little education becomes a transforming experience. The plum comic role is filled with delicious moments, every one exploited by Hollum as she turns cluelessness into an art form.
Jonathan Fried similarly revels in the meaty role of Harry Brock, the ruthless junkyard magnate and would-be master of all he surveys. Fried is the perfect foil as the crass, bombastic tycoon who finally gets his comeuppance. Michael Bakkensen also excels as the sober journalist Paul Verrall, anchor of the rocking ship.
Other standouts include Rick Foucheux as Ed Devery, the fallen attorney who drowns his frustration in scotch and sarcasm. Terrence Currier, a veteran member of Arena’s former resident company, offers a crisp perf as the pliable senator, while Nancy Robinette provides her usual deft touch to a minor role as the senator’s wife. Susan Lynskey’s disdainful maid punctuates the ribald proceedings.
Donnelly’s fast-paced production is presented on Arena’s four-sided Fichandler stage, embellished with a suitably luxurious hotel-suite set by Kate Edmunds. Michael Krass’ costumes provide a colorful tour of post-WWII styles, especially with Hollum’s bountiful wardrobe.
Kanin’s tweak of Washington politics is a natural for Arena, so natural that a.d. Molly Smith has sought the rights almost since the day she arrived there seven years ago. Kanin’s protective estate finally gave the nod after Arena offered to accompany the four-week run with a mini-festival devoted to the playwright’s legacy. One presumes they have no regrets.