`Born' again with comic, local flavor



Born Yesterday was Garson Kanin's first play, and six decades later the ending seems more like a civics lesson, but it's a civics lesson that's still pertinent in Washington.

Though Kanin's comedy is set in 1945, its message about the dangers of big business influencing government comes across with hit-you-over-the-head relevance in director Kyle Donnelly's sturdy production at Washington's Arena Stage.

It's an enjoyable reheating of an old comic chestnut with a vibrant performance by lead actress Suli Holum, a Baltimore School for the Arts grad. But there's nothing particularly new or fresh in Donnelly's interpretation.

Holum plays Billie Dawn, the ex-chorus girl mistress of Harry Brock, a thuggish multimillionaire junk dealer. Wearing an ever-changing sexy wardrobe (costumes by Michael Krass), hair that's swept back and pouffed up on top, and a walk that's closer to a come-hither dance routine, Holum looks like a 1940s version of a Barbie doll. This isn't Career Barbie, however. It's Doxy Barbie, a kept woman who not only doesn't think for herself, she doesn't think much at all.

That's the way Billie likes it and, most of all, it's the way Brock likes it. With his slicked-back blond hair and neatly trimmed mustache, Jonathan Fried's Brock cuts a more handsome figure than some of the high-profile actors who've played this role (Ed Asner in the 1989 Broadway revival and John Goodman in the 1993 updated movie). Far from a deep thinker himself, Brock has bullied his way to success, and his violent tendencies are gasp-inducing in this highly physical production (fight choreography by Rick Sordelet).

Brock comes to Washington in hopes of influencing some foreign trade legislation. When his lawyer (Rick Foucheux) convinces him that Billie's edges need smoothing, the racketeer hires a New Republic reporter named Paul Verrall (Michael Bakkensen) to "smarten 'er up." And that's when the trouble starts.

Born Yesterday is partly a riff on Pygmalion, partly a political parable and partly a love story. But in Donnelly's production, Billie doesn't fall in love with Bakkensen's relatively lackluster Verrall as much as she falls in love with learning. Although she initially makes an overt play for Verrall, it's books - piles and piles eventually litter designer Kate Edmunds' lavish hotel suite set - that make her eyes light up.

Kanin's comedy has plenty of lines that resonate with a Washington audience. Billie's definition of "democratic" ("not Republican") got a big laugh on opening night. And her transformation is as delightful to witness as ever. But perhaps we've all become a little too cynical and jaded to find many surprises in Born Yesterday anymore.

According to the trade paper Variety, it took Arena Stage five years to secure the rights to Born Yesterday, whose major productions are tightly controlled. Arena won out only after inviting the manager of Kanin's literary properties to attend audition call-backs.

The production that resulted from these extraordinary efforts is pleasant enough, but ultimately, like Harry Brock himself, its self-important bark is stronger than its comic bite.


If you go

Born Yesterday continues through Nov. 6 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., S.W., Washington. $46-$60. Call 202-488-3300

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