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June 20th, 2011

Born Yesterday

Despite being on the eve of the eve of the eve of leaving hearth and home to sojourn in Roanoke, Virginia for six long weeks (and running around like proverbial headless chickens laying out clothes and maps and class materials and presents for friends), we went to see Born Yesterday last week.  And I'm going to review it--perhaps more briefly than usual, owing to all of the above.  But I skipped reviewing The Importance of Being Earnest, with the Tony-nominated-but-not-winning Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell, and I don't want to wimp out completely, do I?  Of course not.

Born Yesterday is a play from 1947, a period I haven't seen a lot of theater from.  Post-War, pre-McCarthy, its characters shamelessly modeled on the film stereotypes of gangsters, dizzy blondes, and decent, upstanding journalists, Garson Kanin's play is not the most enlightened play on the block.  It's the story of how the Dumb Blonde mistress of a shady scrap-metal dealer (in Washington to make sure his pet Senator gets a war-profiteering bill through the Senate) is awakened to philosophy and literature and morality by a poor but well-educated journalist. Think Educating Rita, with dumb blonde jokes.  It's a play that pretty much rests on the shoulders of its leads, and in this case, it's very well supported indeed.

The Blonde is played by Nina Arianda.  She was nominated for a Tony for this performance, and no wonder.  Her Billie Dawn is a lot more complex than the character Kanin wrote.  She says she's dumb, and even believes it, but she's absolutely and totally not dumb, either emotionally or intellectually.  She comes off as being oddly innocent and utterly honest.  Arianda is remarkable.  I know, having seen her in Venus in Fur, that she has a lovely flexible speaking voice.  She has modeled Billie's voice on Jean Hagen, who was Lina Lamont in Singing in the Rain, who had a voice like a screech owl and an accent like an old-school New Yawk taxi driver.  Apparently, she bruised her vocal chords and isn't allowed to speak other than during performances.  I'm not surprised.  But it's certainly an effective choice.

The Golden Junk Man is played by Jim Belushi.  What can I say?  When he's funny, he's very funny, in a bumbling tough-guy way, until he gets serious, when he is genuinely and unsettlingly scary.  It's as if a different, darker, more complex play surfaces for a moment, like a shark, then disappears again, leaving only a small trail of blood dissipating in the calm, sunny water of the comic action.  As I said, unsettling, but I liked it.  I'd have liked it better if the text of the play actually reflected it.  The endgame is very fantasy indeed, with actions taken that have no consequences apart from those dictated by the need to drive Billie into the journalist's arms.  But you can't have everything.  Belushi, Arianda, and Leonard as the journalist (not to mention the ott black-and-white over-decorated set and the pitch-perfect costumes) were plenty.  And a comedy about corruption in high places and the basic amorality of capitalism?  Sadly, never out of style.

It's going to be around, but since Arianda missed Best Actress, it's not as hot a ticket as it was.  Discounts should be available, and are so worth it.


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