"I want everyone to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in."
That’s a serious quote to start a review of a comedy. Born Yesterday, the last show of the season at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, is now on the Mainstage. It’s a play that manages to mesh elements of screwball comedy and political comedy. The 1946 script is from the gifted pen of the late Garson Kanin; Kanin freely acknowledged the influence of Frank Capra, he of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and such.
Like most of us, parts of the story have aged well and parts haven’t. But the essence of it is a delight, and so are a great many of the details. If you are only familiar with the Judy Holliday-Broderick Crawford film (for which Holliday won an Oscar), this is a slightly bawdier version. Hollywood censorship was flourishing in 1950 when the film was made. No, return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear when the word “broad” could be used in front of a live audience.
A businessman who’s made a mint in scrap during the recently ended World War II has come to Washington to do some business. He’s one of those self-made men with plenty of rough edges, and his girlfriend, a former chorus girl whom he keeps in plenty of style, is equally unpolished. He’s brought her along on the trip. His attorney, once an assistant Attorney General of the United States, has arrived before them and is preparing a meeting with a certain senator. It seems there’s some legislation that would greatly benefit the scrap business.
Billie Dawn, the girlfriend, is clearly accustomed to signing whatever Harry, the scrap dealer, and Ed, the lawyer, put in front of her. She looks great, they both agree, but the attorney points out that she’s not really ready for prime time when it comes to mingling with the Washington Establishment – not, to be honest, that Harry is, either, expensive suits and cigars notwithstanding, but who tells their client that? But how to smooth those rough edges? A young, eager magazine writer who’s just interviewed Harry, or at least tried to, might be purchased to do the job, they think. And so Paul is persuaded to join the merry band.
Harry is just not a very nice man, despite admitting to his attorney that he’s brought Billie along “because I’m crazy about that broad”. He does not yell for her, he bellows. He demeans her. And we see that he is capable of physical violence in a scene very early in the play – not with Billie, but nevertheless….
The ex-chorine is quite taken with the bespectacled writer. On some level she seems to understand that he’s an ally against the power structure in the quasi-household. They begin – although it’s hard to imagine starting this kiddo on authors like Alexander Pope, Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll. Long before the phrase about raising one’s consciousness came into popular use, that’s what is happening here. Billie discovers that signing those papers has given her some power over Harry. Harry has been working the political system in ways that are, let us say, not unfamiliar to contemporary America. Sort of like the rough-edged powerful guy might seem vaguely familiar, you know? The quote above is from Billie as she begins to stand up to Harry.
Billie is Ruth Pferdehirt, delightfully gifted at the facial expressions and delivery of lines for her character as she gets woke. The gin rummy scene is a classic – it’s hard to take one’s eyes away from her then. Andy Prosky’s Harry is not quite larger than life, but close, and certainly in Harry’s own mind he is. One doubts that he is truly “crazy about that broad” except for the fact that sometimes he tolerates her shouting back at him. Ted Deasy is Ed, the attorney, his slowly increasing blood alcohol perhaps helping anesthetize his guilt, a nicely subtle performance. Paul, the writer, Aaron Bartz, shows his increasing attraction to Billie very well, with the restraint typical of the mid-century mores. Eddie, Harry’s long-suffering general factotum, Randy Donaldson, is as much the object of Harry’s bellowing and complaints as Billie, and bears it manfully.
Pamela Hunt directed, using the script’s teaching moments to good effect, and pulls the strong cast together well. The beautiful hotel suite (amusing that there’s two bedrooms) is from James Morgan, the scenic designer, with Mary Jo Dondlinger’s lighting design. Lou Bird must have had some fun with these costumes as Billie gets more elegant as her grammar improves and her vocabulary increases.
Illegally fun. So to speak.
through April 8
Repertory Theatre St. Louis
Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts
130 Edgar Rd., Webster Groves