Born Yesterday premiered on Broadway in 1946 but feels oddly relevant to today’s political climate. Corrupt business interests in Washington, an enlightened female standing up for herself, the threat of revealing seedy dealings in the newspaper—sound familiar?
This comedy by Garson Kanin is currently onstage at Maltz Jupiter Theatre through November 12. The laugh-out-loud script, stellar performances, and opulent set design make this production a must-see theatrical event.
Set in 1946, Born Yesterday follows millionaire junkman Harry Brock as he travels to our nation’s capital with the goal of greasing a few senatorial wheels. He takes up residence in a $235-per-night hotel room—quite the hefty sum at the time—that glows with gilded decor and not-so-subtle odes to D.C., such as framed portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, as well as stenciled outlines of famed monuments.
Harry has not traveled alone. No, this is a man with an entourage that includes his cousin, Eddie, and his girlfriend, Billie Dawn. A former chorus girl (who even had five lines in Anything Goes), Billie is a joy to look at but a drag to talk to. Fearing she’ll embarrass him in front of the Washington elite, Harry asks a neighboring reporter, Paul, to tutor her. Harry gets more than he bargained for when Billie embraces this education and begins to question his poor behavior and shady business practices.
Simple enough, no? Rich man asks smart man to teach his dumb girlfriend. Think of it as Pretty Woman for the post-World War II era. But what the plot lacks in nuance, the script makes up for in humor, an asset director Peter Flynn teases out at every opportunity—from the way the bellhops open doors and prance up the stairs, to the nonverbal asides each character presents to the audience.
Of course, a comedy can only soar on the back of a good cast—and this one is amazing. Broadway veteran Andréa Burns is a delight as the dimwitted Billie Dawn. Her squeaky voice and plucky portrayal is the perfect balance of annoying and endearing. At the beginning, Billie epitomizes the phrase “ignorance is bliss,” even proudly proclaiming “I’m stupid and I like it.” But she’s earnest in her search for truth, propelled by a budding affection for Paul. Burns captures these gradual changes within Billie, allowing the audience to not only see her evolution but root for her ultimate victory.
As the boarish Harry Brock, Dominic Comperatore delivers laugh after laugh. At the beginning, his portrayal feels almost overwhelmingly broad, but then you realize, hey, that’s the point. This guy is playing a caricature of a mid-century, low-brow he-man—and he nails it. He’s quick to anger and slow to understand, well, just about anything. But Comperatore offers up a De Niro-esque likability that is just a joy to watch.
On the other hand, there’s Paul Verrall, played by Darian Dauchan. Paul is an intellectual, from his glasses to his argyle, his prose to his puns. Dauchan serves one of the more subdued performances, trading the panache of his peers for the thoughtfulness his character deserves. This is a man who reads Thomas Paine and recites flowery oration on the life of Napoleon. Playing him too big would have turned Paul into a pompous know-it-all. In Dauchan’s hands, however, Paul becomes a sympathetic supporter for Billie’s curiosity and transformation.
Speaking of transformations, one of the most delightful aspects of this production is the way the set transforms over intermission. Scenic designer Annie Mundell turns Billie’s inner enlightenment outward by imbuing the set with stacks and stacks of books, numerous paintings, and even a globe and dictionary for easy reference.
In a show like Born Yesterday, it’s these small creative decisions that lead to a grander whole. Billie’s costumes progress from flamboyant to stylishly smart thanks to designer Franne Lee. Actress Sara Oliva turns Helen the maid into a scene-stealer who disrupts arguments with badly timed entrances and then milks every step for all its worth. Even the wigs by Gerard Kelly bring to life a not-so-distant past when women were expected to maintain an immaculate coif.
At face value, Born Yesterday is a feel-good comedy packed with laughs. But, much like Billie, so much more substance lies just beneath the surface.