`Born Yesterday' speaks to hot issues of today

Theater: Kittamaqundi players bring 1946 thoughtful comedy to life.

Review

May 23, 2002|By William Hyder | William Hyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Born Yesterday, the Kittamaqundi Theatre's current production, was written in 1946 but touches on issues that are still hot: women's liberation, domestic violence and big-money "contributions" to lawmakers.

In addition, it's a very funny show, and a cast of strong performers, ably directed by Jenny Leopold, brings it entertainingly to life.

At the end of World War II, Harry Brock, a self-made multimillionaire junk dealer, goes to Washington to buy influence in Congress.

With him are his mistress, Billie Dawn, once a Broadway chorus girl, and Eddie Brock, his cousin, yes-man and gofer.

Harry is welcomed by his lawyer, Ed Devery, a one-time assistant attorney general who has abandoned his early idealism and gone for the money. Devery brings in a young Washington reporter, Paul Verrall, to interview Harry.

Paul writes for The New Republic, which tips off the audience that he's a liberal and therefore Harry's natural enemy.

Next Devery introduces Harry to an accommodating senator, Norval Hodges, and his wife. Harry is annoyed by Billie's gauche behavior with these Washington grandees (he overlooks his own) and hires Paul to give her some class.

During the two acts that follow, Billie discovers her own intelligence, falls in love with Paul and learns to defy Harry personally and politically.

In an energetic performance, Fred Gordon shows vividly what a vulgar bully Harry is. His Cousin Eddie, put in the script for comic relief, is played broadly by Bob Hoke - maybe a little too broadly for the realistic tone of the play.

Bob Hollis makes Sen. Hodges a dull man, ill at ease and even timid when face-to-face with Harry.

That's hard to believe. As a powerful lawmaker and an expert conniver, you'd expect him to display shrewdness and confidence.

Harry's lawyer, Devery, is an alcoholic. Alcoholics are good at hiding their condition, but an actor has to make things plain to the audience. Bruce Leipold conveys the idea with a subtle vagueness of expression and movement, and at the same time convincingly projects the man's intelligence.

Stephen Namie adeptly portrays the amiable and intelligent young writer, Verrall. (Namie wears two days' growth of beard - fashionable today, maybe, but unheard of in the 1940s.)

The script shows two sides of Billie: the dumb blonde and the woman of intelligence and sensitivity.

Cynthia Lasner plays both to perfection. The change from one to the other, though, is unconvincing and the fault lies with playwright Garson Kanin.

In Act I, Billie is depicted as an airhead; in Acts II and II, a mere two months later, we find her reading Aristotle and Kierkegaard and listening to Sibelius' Violin Concerto. It's too abrupt.

Billie isn't dumb in Act I, just unaware. Life has conditioned her to adopt an air of crude stupidity. But the audience doesn't know this because her dialogue gives no hint of it. An occasional flash of intelligence would have made the difference.

Others in the cast are Betty Lasner (Mrs. Hodges), Dede Newport (Helen, a chambermaid), Diette Yoshioka (the hotel's assistant manager), Dick Holmes (barber), Micayla Diener (manicurist) and Matt DeBeal (bellhop).

Recorded big band music, numbers such as "In the Mood" and "Tuxedo Junction," take the audience back to the 1940s before the show begins. Act III is preceded by "I'm Beginning to See the Light" - a nice touch.

The show ends on an idealistic note: Paul throws out lines such as "Don't you know this muscle stuff is a thing of the past?" and "Legislation is not for buying and selling."

He warns Harry that there are "too many honest men in this town" for him to succeed in influencing Congress. (The author apparently meant that remark to be taken seriously.)

This idealism has not exactly been justified in the 56 years that have gone by since Born Yesterday was written. Harry Brock, more suave and better-educated, still wields his power in Washington.

But the show was a hit on both stage and screen, so you can be sure that it has a happy ending.

Kittamaqundi Theatre presents Born Yesterday at Oliver's Carriage House, 5410 Leaf Treader Way, Columbia. Show times are at 8 p.m. tomorrow and at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday. Information and reservations: 410-992-4290.

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