Having myself been born somewhat before yesterday, I’ve encountered Garson Kanin’s 1946 comedy, Born Yesterday (Cort Theatre), more than once, onstage as well as in the 1950 George Cukor film, which preserves Judy Holliday’s acclaimed stage performance. So I know where the work’s shortcomings are buried. But I’ve never seen a production that kept them buried more effectively than this new revival, directed by Doug Hughes as snappily as if Born Yesterday had been written yesterday and just shot out of somebody’s computer printer this a.m.
Nearly everything in this Born Yesterday looks fresh, most of all the relative newcomer Nina Arianda’s adorable incarnation of the heroine, Billie Dawn, the crooked junk dealer’s chorus-girl mistress whose education in love and corporate ethics supplies the comedy’s plot. By turns coarse, vulnerable, goofy, and brash, Arianda’s Billie, apparently oblivious to the effect her leggy figure has on males, pulls off the feat that challenges every production of this work: She makes you forget, at least temporarily, that anyone else ever played the role.
Apart from one or two minor quirks of overinterpretation, Hughes’s staging speeds so nimbly over Kanin’s script that you may wonder why anybody ever griped, as people have, about the few fleeting moments when it pauses to take itself seriously. The secret weapon fueling the nimbleness is Robert Sean Leonard’s performance as Paul Verrall, the leftist newsman who reluctantly signs on to coach Billie in gentility, and winds up playing liberator to her unenlightened proletariat.
Though handsome and charming, Leonard is an actor who always seems to lead with his brain; the first energy you pick up from him is invariably cerebral. This, combined with his almost mathematical skill at underplaying, means that when Paul speaks of democracy and justice, his ideas, instead of sounding like solemn communications from the author, register as spontaneous flashes from an alert mind, the natural aspects of a distinctive personality, quiet but firm, that wins you over precisely because it’s in no hurry to do so.
Leonard’s appealing exactitude strikes a perfect balance both with Arianda and with Jim Belushi’s portrayal of the crass, stop-at-nothing scrap metal magnate, Harry Brock. Harry is by way of being the play’s villain—he and Billie are stuck in Washington while he waits for a bought senator to ram through an amendment that will legalize his shady operations—but Hughes’s production underscores one of Born Yesterday‘s principal virtues: that it loves the sinner while hating the sin.
Like Billie, Harry has fought his way up from childhood poverty; both, as a result, have an eye for material things; both feel no shame over their own lack of polish. (Harry is embarrassed at the impression Billie makes, but is oblivious to his own crudity.) In Paul’s outsider cynicism about Washington, Harry recognizes a kindred spirit; in a differently arranged world, the two might have been friends. But Harry can’t let go of either the goals ingrained by his childhood deprivation or the now-routine tactics—cheating and violence—by which he achieves them. What finally undoes him is his own impatience with the niceties of both his crooked corporate schemes and his relationship to Billie; he is hoist with his own petard.
Belushi paints all this with size and spirit, but also with sensitivity, a word you might not expect to find applied to the acting of such a role. Loud, crude, and ugly on the surface, this Harry Brock shows a flickering helplessness underneath. Just menacing enough to be genuinely scary, he never lets the hints of pathos soften him into a Damon Runyon cartoon gangster. Staunchly unlovable, he’s also clearly a person who needs love, and we can all identify with that.
These three subtle performances give the comedy solidity; Hughes’s shrewd sense of timing gives it variety, lingering over pivotal moments to break up the hectic, farcical to-and-fro. The one major directorial oddity is Frank Wood’s weirdly off-key rendering of Harry’s self-hating lawyer; one minor role, the senator’s wife, also misfires. But Terry Beaver, as the compliant senator, is so convincingly buttery that I half expect to see him addressing a Tea Party caucus—another instance of Born Yesterday‘s aptness for our crooked time.