Wow. Just wow. Born Yesterday, a Tony-award winning play written in 1946 by Garson Kanin, feels likes a premonition come to fruition.
Shortly after World War II, tycoon Harry Brock (Edward Gero) goes to D.C. to wield his money to get what he wants: legislation that enables his business’ success. He employs the smart, if alcoholic, lawyer Ed Devery (Eric Hissom) and his cousin Eddie (Evan Casey) and brings along his lady friend, the former showgirl Billie Dawn (Kimberly Gilbert), whose lack of social decorum and ditzy-ness threaten to derail his dealings, including bribes to Senator Hedges (Todd Scofield). He hires journalist Paul Verrall (Cody Nickell) to tutor and polish her. Billie, it turns out, is a human sponge, absorbing knowledge and unlocking ideals until she’s able to see Brock for the corrupt menace he is and comes into her own as an independent, free-thinking class act.
Brock is a new-money man, who declares early on that that “nobody ever gave me nothing,’” as he details his rise as junkyard king to his hired writer who is writing a profile. In a glitzy hotel room that cost $235 a night (equal to $3,184 today), a massive window behind a stately staircase frames the Capitol building, as if the halls of Congress are watching over the farce. It’s a nice, stylistic touch as Brock preens his way through the interview, getting a shave and a shoeshine, while throwing his weight around. Demanding this and that of his staff. Bossing Billie with a repetitive, and booming, “do what I’m tellin’ you.” Never hesitating to call her a “goddamn dumb blonde.” She doesn’t mind or pick up that Brock himself is an uncouth, low IQ person. His money is what speaks to her. Not his mind, unlike intellectual Verrall to whom she finds strangely attractive.
Billie starts off cloying—displaying the type of little-girl buffoonery that sets women back—with an aptitude for nothing other than merrily dancing across the floor and killing at Gin Rummy, where she demands her winnings from Harry immediately. It’s a telling first act, which establishes her firmly as a know-nothing—on full display when she interacts with Mrs. Hedges (Naomi Jacobson). But, her card playing shows she can be taught and has a latent knack for strategy. Gilbert is flawless in establishing Billie’s heart and maintaining it, even as her mind is expanded and brightened, and in using perfect comic timing to show off Billie’s learning.
Gero, too, is brilliant even if Brock is not. He captures the nonchalant way in which Brock assumes everyone, and I mean everyone, should bend and bow to his desire. He hits Billie and, drink in hand, seemingly wraps it into the series of favors he’s done to make her life grand. She owes him; the payment is quiet acceptance of his tyranny.
Hissom as Devery brings well-timed comic beats as a once noble figure now fallen. Nickell’s Verrall is an excellent catalyst for Billie’s change. Both are key to the plot and can’t be underplayed, but this show belongs Gilbert and Gero. The Billie and Brock power dynamic draws you in and its shift provides equal amounts of levity and tiny heart tremors.
The second act becomes Billie’s show, but even as she stands up to the bullish Brock—further unveiling the beast we once merrily laughed at when he simply seemed a jolly self-made man—she fights an instinct to cower. It’s subtle and beautiful and raw, peeking out ever-so-slightly from behind funny zingers.
closes October 21, 2018
Details and tickets
A few outfits, Billie’s wavy bob, and how none of the men flinch at Brocks’ justification for hitting Billie–nor at her shiner seem to be the only throwbacks that age the play (it’s 72 years old for the non-Mathletes like me). But, then, the more I thought on Harry’s casual domestic abuse, I looked down the street to the Supreme Court drama that unfolded this week. Everything about this play speaks to the now. From the patriarchy’s shrug-off of violence against women to the buying of politicians by big business and the wealthy. To the corruption those purchases have embedded into our laws, propagating more corruption. From the inequalities in class and clashes over minimum wage to the war on journalistic integrity and public education.
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It’s all here, and though this is a comedy (and is indeed funny) I watched more with rapt fascination, struggling to believe, with its relevancy and pinpoint accuracy, that it wasn’t fresh commentary on 2018.
The dialogue is strangely prophetic and eerily familiar, a testament to Kanin’s writing and astute understanding of not just politics and D.C. but general humanity.
“If you’re not with me, you’re against me,” Brock says at one point. And, towards the end, he laughs off Verrall and Billie’s decision to cut ties. “He could’ve had a hundred grand. She could’ve had me. Now, they got nothin’.” Wow. Just wow. Again.
At multiple moments, a hush—a hot silence—fell over the audience as if we were collectively admonishing ourselves for neglecting our civic duty. No, not around voting. Around not engaging in Democracy by learning. Studying it beyond required school courses. Understanding the candidates. And, recognizing, and rejecting, fascism, strongmen, and cults of personality when all are on stage being applauded. This is what Born Yesterday asked of its viewers from 1946 to 1956, when it ran on Broadway for nearly four years and became both a feature film and TV movie, the former, an Academy-award winner. It failed in its mission. Otherwise, Harry Brocks would not be running amuck in government today, embedding his particular brand of bullish manipulation, prideful ignorance, money-love, and self-worship into democratic institutions with impunity.
Honestly, this should be mandatory watching (or reading) for civic education classes (just not the 1993 version, which should stay in its Rotten Tomatoes grave). The willfully ignorant can become willfully non-ignorant. In fact, true Democracy demands it. As fictional former Assistant Attorney General Ed Devery says, “The curse of civilization—don’t-care-ism.”
Let’s all care. Start by seeing Born Yesterday.
Born Yesterday Written by Garson Kanin. Directed by Aaron Posner. Featuring Evan Casey, Matt Dewberry, Edward Gero, Kimberly Gilbert, Eric Hissom, Naomi Jacobson, Cody Nickell, Todd Scofield, and Jamie Smithson. Production: Daniel Lee Conway, Scenic Design; Kelsey Hunt, Costume Design; Nancy Schertler, Lighting Design; John Gromada, Sound Design and Original Music; Anne Nesmith, Hair and Make-Up Design; Patrick Pearson, Casting; Kristin Fox-Siegmund, Deputy Director and Director of Programming; and Julia Singer, Assistant Stage Manager. Stage Managed by Brandon Prendergast. Produced by Ford’s Theatre . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.
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