A play about a character’s awakening to the corruption pervading society has some obviously essential plot points, but how do you make it popular? Garson Kanin’s solution was to make it funny.
Written in 1946, after the United States was riding high over the post-war world but before the Cold War, Kanin’s political comedy was a Broadway hit and a major film starring Judy Holliday. Though the play is unmistakably of a very particular era, Remy Bumppo’s production, under the direction of David Darlow, is not only still amusing, it also contains complex character interaction and remains prescient regarding the political situation we now find ourselves in.
A Capital Drawing Room Comedy
The swanky drawing room Kanin’s play is set in is part of a Washington D.C. hotel suite which costs what was then an obscene amount of money to rent per night. Setting up headquarters there for an indeterminate period of time are junk tycoon Harry Brock (Sean M. Sullivan) and his girlfriend, Billie Dawn (Eliza Stoughton). Angling for an interview with Brock is upstart Truman-esque New Republic opinion columnist Paul Verrall (Greg Matthew Anderson). Brock’s lawyer, Ed Devery (Shawn Douglass) warns Brock that Verrall wields tremendous influence and he is despondent, though unsurprised, when Brock is unimpressed.
Brock candidly brags to Verrall that he’s living proof that any publicity is good publicity and that being demonized in the media actually benefits him. It was his ability to intimidate and cheat people which raised him from childhood poverty to the pinnacle of wealth, and his persistent vulgar mannerisms allow him to rub the elites’ noses in how little their class signals count for when confronted with the true nature of power.
But while Brock finds his own effect on people useful, it soon becomes apparent that Billie’s boredom and irritation at high society make her annoying and embarrassing instead of menacing. For convoluted legal reasons, Brock uses her as a puppet CEO over most of his holdings, and he feels too much real affection for her to send her back to New Jersey.
But something must be done about her social skills, and so he hires Verrall to teach her how to speak and entertain.
Verrall senses an opportunity to save a starved mind and supplies Billie with a reading list of classical liberal texts which formed the basis of the Age of Reason. Soon, Billie is questioning Brock’s plans for her and the government, as well as whether the life of a concubine can really fulfill her.
Deft Actors Hardly Born Yesterday
Kanin’s script, though sometimes preachy, contains a wealth of dialogue and stage directions which can be used to establish playful, yet complicated relationships and scene dynamics. Darlow and his cast, particularly Stoughton and Sullivan, mine them for all they’re worth. The meeting between Billie and Brock and Senator Hedges (Brian Parry) and his wife (Maggie Clennon Reberg) is a masterpiece of faux pas, silent indulgences, symbolic power jockeying, and things said with the eyes but not out loud. It clearly shows why Brock is agitated enough over Billie to take a risk on Verrall, but just as importantly, we see the softer side of their relationship. Afterward, the couple’s game of gin rummy brought a grin to everyone in the audience.
Stoughton is fully believable at every point in Billie’s journey. From the street-smart, but unmotivated woman we see at the beginning of the play to the burgeoning liberal reformer we see at the end, Stoughton’s Billie is always amusing and sympathetic, but a little exasperating and with more than a bit of a bite. Verrall perceives that Billie was unjustly denied an intellectual adolescence and he guides her to, but not through, one. Anderson’s Verrall is a solid mentor for her, more than a little arrogant, but sincere in his belief that anyone can and should be educated and possessing the courage of his convictions. No less crucial is Sullivan’s performance, which demonstrates Brock to be brutal and selfish, but not heartless or with evil intent. That’s a good thing, too; the play’s optimism hinges on us believing that he doesn’t have Billie and Verrall murdered minutes after the lights go down.
Context is Key
As a statement of a political position, the play works quite well. The audience will enjoy Darlow’s ensemble, as well as Grant Sabin’s scenic design (with set dressing by Jamie Karas), Kanin’s ability to write the ebb and flow of a scene’s energy, and a straightforward defense of Age of Enlightenment principles. Remy Bumppo’s producers heavily contextualized Born Yesterday within their other recent productions, specifically Both Your Houses and Pygmalion, but having seen those is hardly necessary.
The inescapable feeling that Harry Brock is like a Trump without a Bannon is sufficient context to make the play timely. However, Born Yesterday certainly works better when considered as being in conversation with other recent Chicago productions exploring, for example, an overly powerful editorialist or a gangster with political ambitions. Our city’s theatre community is certainly doing their part to contribute to our political conversation, and Remy Bumppo’s reminder of the impact an education can have on someone is an important part of that.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
March 22-April 30
Thursdays 7:30 pm
Fridays 7:30 pm
Saturdays 7:30 pm
Sundays 2:30 pm
Wednesdays, April 12 and 26 7:30 pm
Thursdays, April 20 2:30 pm
Greenhouse Theater Center
2257 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis is a freelance writer and dramaturge. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of dramatic literature and interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham. His professional work includes developing new performance pieces such as The Blues Ain’t a Color. Since moving to Chicago in 2014 he has reviewed theatre, written articles, and conducted interviews for a number of websites.