Sunday, April 09, 2006

opening-night review of *Born Yesterday* at Actors Rep

With the season’s deepest ensemble, most energetic direction, most loathsome crook, best inspiration in a tight skirt and most delight taken in skewering corporate sleaze, the current revival of Garson Kanin’s *Born Yesterday* (at Actors Rep through April 22), may be the best darn civics lesson any Spokane theater will offer for some time. It’s certainly the funniest.

Kanin’s comedy, 60 years old, is prescient as a Democrat’s fantasy. Imagine Tom DeLay getting hammered right into prison, and all his old friends are laughing at him, only he’s too dumb to know it — and somebody else gets the girl. That’s the gist of *Born Yesterday,* reborn for today.

Change the terms a bit — Michael Milken sold junk bonds, Ken Lay sold junk energy — and Harry Brock, the corrupt magnate who sells plain old junk, starts to look like our contemporary.

Brock hunkers down in our nation’s capital to butter some politicians’ bread with bribery. He’s used to getting his way, see, so don’t try any monkey business, pal. Only he’s got this dumb broad of a girlfriend, and she’s like to make him look uncouth or sumpin around all these socialites and senators. So he decides to hire a writer (a real wise-acre, that one) to tutor the chorus girl, give her a kind of intellectual make-over. Only the plan backfires, and Harry Brock learns to spell big words like “comeuppance.”

An opening sequence, with bellhops sprinting, flunkies fetching drinks and Harry bellowing, sets a dizzying tone. Tralen Doler’s direction — set for maximum energy and volume — is as snappy as the straps under those bellhops’ chins.

As Brock, Michael Weaver sets his voice on “bellow” and occasionally screeches higher. He’s as morally ugly in this role as he’s ever been on a local stage. One trap with the Brock character is to sketch a caricature of selfishness — this guy screams at everyone around him, always expecting to get his way. In everything. All the time. He’s a stupid man who measures other people stupidly — solely by how much money they make — and whose last-resort argument always involves threatening violence.

But Weaver shows us hulk’s insecurities, too: He’s still settling scores from his boyhood, still wants his dame Billie to like him. With his tongue lumping beneath his lower lip, his mouth tightening with menace, Weaver makes a convincing bad guy. Some of the comic mannerisms linger — double-takes over surprises that Brock would ride out with bluster — but those are small flaws. Weaver’s boss man is unpredictable, switching in a flash from mean to nice— just like a snake, or a wife abuser.

As Paul Verrall, the reporter who takes on the tasks of educating Billie and exposing Brock, Dexter Ankrom borrows from William Holden’s look in the movie. More important, he’s persuasive as the idealist/teacher. When he urges Billie to read Pope and Dickens and Paine, he’s effectively aiming his exhortations at us, too.

If you want still more acting lessons, look for the details in Doler’s ensemble. Watch Ann Whiteman, a vision of Mamie Eisenhower propriety, festooned in gloves and fur as the senator’s wife, simpering and grimacing as Harry and his broad put on their vulgarian display. Watch John Oswald, the corrupt senator, staring with self-disgust into his tumbler full of whiskey, then snapping on the charm just before the next glad-handing offensive. Watch Patrick Treadway blanch when his look-the-other-way lawyer gets his tough hide of self-deception peeled back; notice how his tippling accelerates, growing even sloppier and more desperate.

The uncredited set gleams with fancy ‘50s fixtures — and though the flimsy double-door entry is a flaw in this otherwise elegant hotel suite, a bust of Shakespeare presides over the bookshelves, as if to hint at all the tutoring and mind-opening in Act Two.

Which is only appropriate, because we’re the ones being tutored. When the writer takes the dumb broad in hand (!), exposing her to editorials and museums and art, he’s Kanin’s stand-in: The playwright isn’t just showing Billie how much fun having things explained to you can be. He’s showing us, too. Our country’s good, but only as good as the people (and thinking, informed voters) in it. The delight in Ankrom’s and Lang’s performances is that they make learning seem, not useless and boring but invigorating and fun. There’s a serious point in there, too — a democracy depends on an informed citizenry — but mostly Kanin is writing comedy.

Still, *Born Yesterday* doesn’t shy away from heavier matters — like domestic violence, with Harry Brock prowling about like a lesser Stanley Kowalski. In fact, *Born Yesterday* brings up a lot of associations, all of them good ones: *All My Sons* for the wartime corruption, *My Fair Lady* for the Pygmalion-figure’s intellectual make-over. It’s an American classic that you ought to see — and as good as Judy Holiday is in the 1950 movie (and as poor as the Melanie Griffith version was 43 years later), Garson Kanin’s comedic paean to democracy is something all voting Americans, here in the twilight of the failed Bush administration, ought to see in a theater, just for the up-close intensity that a live performance in the Spartan Theatre affords.

Like Billie, if we start educating ourselves, we might just throw a revolution. First we’ll read a book, and then we’ll throw da bums out — all of ‘em. Right on their corrupt little keisters.

For a revised version of this review — with comments on Christina Lang’s excellent performance as Billie Dawn — pick up a copy of the April 13 issue of *The Pacific Northwest Inlander.*

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