Review: Public Theater breathes life into 'Born Yesterday'
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Pittsburgh Public Theater opens its "Made in America" season with "Born Yesterday," a 66-year-old war horse that's so homegrown it could be led on stage by that fife and drum trio from the Revolution. The season's six plays are written by American writers, hence the title.
Leading off is Garson Kanin, a workmanlike playwright and director in postwar Broadway and Hollywood. His biggest hit is "Born Yesterday," a screwball comedy with inspirations from Shaw's "Pygmalion" and Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." It ran four years in New York and made Judy Holliday a star.
You've probably seen the 1950 film version a couple of times on late-night television.
"Born Yesterday" is cynical and idealistic, hard-edged and sappy with just enough clever wordplay to make audience members feel they learned something from those high school grammar lessons. The current presidential campaign likely prompted producing artistic director Ted Pappas to pick it even though the political scene in America in 1946 seems simpler than today's bedlam.
Mr. Pappas also directs. The 1946 "Born Yesterday" plays to his strengths with its large, 13-member cast and period feel. He's sure-handed in orchestrating the movement of many actors around the O'Reilly Theater's confines and has a clear sense and appreciation for the historical context of vintage plays. Mr. Pappas also knows his audience's tastes and engages them at every turn, but he missed one opportunity to play to the audience, when the name of the old baseball player Rabbit Maranville came up. Maranville not only played for the Boston Braves, but the Pittsburgh Pirates, too.
In Melissa Miller he has an appealing and energetic Billie Dawn, the onetime chorus girl now glued to the side of crude self-made (junkyards) millionaire Harry Brock (Ted Koch). He likes his broads dumb and willing and believes he's found the perfect "concubine" in Billie, who's -- of course -- dumb like a fox. (Her bio tells us that Ms. Miller was Phi Beta Kappa at Vassar.)
The third leg of the inevitable romantic triangle, magazine writer Paul Verrall, is played with a consistent dullness by Daniel Krell, who could stand to be more suave (and experienced) in his love scenes with Billie. His idealism about "the people" will infect Billie and open her eyes to the right course of action.
Brock is paying Verrall to improve Billie's style a la Henry Higgins while he's buying influence in Washington with the corrupt Sen. Hedges. Plying her with books and newspapers instead of kisses, Verrall professes to be "in love with her mind," which naturally clears the way to her body.
It's the character of Brock's lawyer Ed Devery that casts a dark shadow over this upbeat comedy. He's a drunk and a former assistant attorney general now taking $100,000 a year to buy politicians and draw up legally sketchy documents. Michael McKenzie brings out Devery's conflicted nature with a sensitivity that Kanin's one-dimensional figures lack.
Mr. Pappas fleshes out the cast with Pittsburgh's reliable regulars -- Larry John Meyers as the bum senator, John Shepard as Harry's stooge brother and Ken Bolden as a fawning hotel manager. The action of the three acts is confined to Brock's "$235 a day" hotel suite, a fussy design by James Noone that resembles a furniture store display rather than a posh hotel.
As dated as a '46 felt fedora, this American war horse is spavined and runs out of gas in the home stretch, but it's a gamer. The laugh lines and physical comedy still find a warm home with Pittsburgh audiences, and the Public's usual polished production values create a handsome frame for "Born Yesterday" to glow once again.
First Published October 9, 2012 12:00 am