So, what does it take to drain the humor from a classic Broadway comedy like “Born Yesterday”? Garson Kanin’s stinging 1946 satire on the unholy (and apparently eternal) business alliances struck by avaricious American entrepreneurs with corrupt Washington politicians can hardly be called dated. But something is decidedly off about the sensibility of helmer Doug Hughes’ production, which stars Jim Belushi and Robert Sean Leonard and introduces Nina Arianda as the adorable bubblehead Billie Dawn. Bad enough the leads maintain a wary distance from one another and seem to distrust their own characters, they don’t even seem to like the play.
The designers, at least, got the word that this was supposed to be a comedy.
John Lee Beatty (who has done what, some half-dozen shows this season?) sets the brassy comic tone with an elaborately detailed set of the garish suite — gigantic doors and windows, ornate woodwork, overstuffed furniture, faux fireplace, massive mirrors, even a by-god gilded spiral staircase — that a Washington, D.C., hotel reserves for guests with more money than taste. The white-hot lighting is Peter Kaczorowski’s way of saying: Wake up and laugh, people! And every Catherine Zuber costume comes with a little zinger — a bouncy bustle, a goofy hat, an absurd ascot — to mock the fashion statement its wearer intended to make.
But these design cues are bumped up too many notches in performance. Yelling is no way to make a comedy give up its laughs, and Kanin’s withering views on capitalist enterprise lose much of their impact to the bombastic delivery.
The irony is that everyone looks so good and feels so right for this political fairy tale about Harry Brock (Jim Belushi), a self-made millionaire who has come to Washington to buy up a few politicians, like Sen. Norval Hedges (Terry Beaver). On the bad advice of his cynical lawyer Ed Devery (Frank Wood), Harry makes the fatal error of entrusting the socio-political education of his gorgeous, but dumb girlfriend, Billie Dawn (Nina Arianda), to Paul Verrall (Robert Sean Leonard), a handsome, if unethical reporter for The New Republic. And you can just guess where that leads.
Jim Belushi wants to do right by Brock, he really does. Although he isn’t the gangster Belushi makes him out to be, this crude, cruel millionaire junkman is pretty repulsive if you take him at face value. Even more so if you take him out of his postwar time frame — when rich, powerful men had more freedom to abuse their underlings and kick their women around — and judge him by contemporary standards.
Movie star or no movie star, the audience doesn’t like this Brock, a big bully who is so used to getting whatever he wants that he smacks Billie when she stands up to him. More critically, Belushi doesn’t seem to like him, either — not enough, anyway, to keep him in historical perspective and avoid the temptation to misrepresent him as a charmless Tony Soprano.
Newcomer Arianda is no Judy Holliday, but she’s great fun to watch as she gleefully examines the exciting bits of knowledge that have begun to penetrate Billie Dawn’s newly awakened mind. (Books! With words in them!) Arianda, who proved her understanding of the inner life of dumb broads in “Venus in Furs,” is also plenty cute when she’s flaunting Billie’s curves and shaking the golden curls on her empty head.
What eludes her, though — and it’s no small thing — is the sweet, pure, guileless, childlike, honest-to-god, America-the-Beautiful innocence that makes Billie Dawn the immortal character she is. Arianda’s Billie is a nice kid and a good sport, but innocent? Nah.
Leonard is every bit the heartthrob he plays on “House,” and that sad little grin he relies on to convey his disappointment with the world works very well for Verrall. But his infatuation with Billie is less than convincing, and the lack of energy in his courtship of her makes us question what kind of a catch he actually is.
So, what went wrong with this much-anticipated revival? Call it chemistry; specifically, the lack of it between performers and characters who come from different times and couldn’t bridge the gap between them.