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Theater Review: A Born Yesterday for Today

Robert Sean Leonard and Jim Belushi in Born Yesterday.

A lot’s changed since Born Yesterday opened in 1946. Back then, a heartfelt social comedy could delight audiences for four solid years with wiseacre patriotism, pleasantly pedantic digressions on social justice, and some good-natured knuckle-rapping of thuggish profiteers and the venal Washington politicians who enable them. Writing at the daybreak of postwar American empire, playwright Garson Kanin (who’d go on to pen Adam’s Rib and similarly high-minded stuff) could scarcely have imagined the great betrayals of Vietnam and Watergate, not to mention the unofficial subordination of democracy to a newly deified free market, the Humpty Dumpty splintering of the electorate, the business lobby’s consolidated thrall over know-nothing populism, and the breezy advancement of privatization as a cure-all for the crumbling public trust. But a few things are still the same: The notion of Washington as an open-air farmers’ market of corruption, for example, seems evergreen, as does the indignation of a dazed, buggered American public struggling to both wise up and preserve its innocence. And here’s something that’s thankfully unaltered: the power of a bravura performance to reclaim a classic that’s well past its expiration date, transforming it into a night of (hell, let’s call it what it is) inspirational entertainment. For this reason, I hereby nominate the luminous laugh-goddess Nina Arianda for president, running on the Ditz Savant ticket. Please attach signatures below.

Arianda plays Billie Dawn, a bubbleheaded former chorine and longtime kept moll of Harry Brock (Jim Belushi), a gangsterish scrap-metal magnate who’s in D.C. to buy a senator or two and muscle his budding cartel through the regulatory morass in time to pick clean the still-smoldering bones of Europe. Regally comfortable in his own sulfurous cloud of ignorance, Harry is nonetheless embarrassed by Billie’s lack of refinement, and wants someone to “smarten her up a little” for Washington circles. He’s being interviewed by an irritatingly principled pencil-neck named Paul (Robert Sean Leonard), and decides to kill two birds with one stone: He’ll put Paul on the payroll as Billie’s Pygmalion, and thereby acquire a sharper consort and a pliant press. There’s just one little twist: Billie, in the course of her education, realizes what a canker on the body politic Harry actually is. Which is a problem, because half of Harry’s holdings are in her name, for tax purposes.

Now, we’re not flying off into All My Sons territory here. Miller’s model was Ibsen; Kanin’s were, unmistakably, George Abbott and Frank Capra. Plus, Born is, y’know, a comedy. Nevertheless, the story takes a dark turn or two, and we’re reminded of how tonally elastic and unashamedly sincere mainstream humor used to be. Harry Brock is as close to caricature as a writer can come without the help of Hirschfeld, and Belushi plays him in big brass blats, at intensity levels heretofore reserved for Gleason and Gandolfini. He sweeps around John Lee Beatty’s stunningly, sinfully plush wedding cake of a hotel penthouse like a hydrogen zeppelin in search of an incendiary spark. On paper, the character seems too cloddish and obvious to be menacing — he’s just a curio from that quaint bootstrapping age when bloated plutocrats had to do their own lobbying and strong-arming, personally and in person. (Now that we’ve legally personified corporations, fictionally personifying them seems merely cute. After all, we don’t really have robber barons anymore, just posthuman globo-business-entities with bottomless appetites. And why fly south to bully our lily-livered legislators when a stern txt to K Street is all it takes?) Yet Harry functions well as the play’s useful monster; the reactions he spawns in the actors around him are far more consequential than the man himself. Robert Sean Leonard’s Paul stands up to him, but with eyes carefully downcast and a tremble just-barely detectable in his gray-flannel baritone. And Frank Wood, as Brock’s crooked, scotch-fueled lawyer, never meets his boss’s eyeline. (Or anyone’s, actually: Wood eschews movie-drunk antics for diffident naturalism, in a performance that’s probably a shade too subtle for this material, but is, for the same reason, a welcome palate cleanser between courses of fine organic ham.)

And then there’s Arianda, the play’s animating ambrosia and, without a doubt, the most exciting find of the Broadway season. To my regret, I missed her in last season’s Venus in Fur, but seeing her now, I understand the already radiant reputation this absurdly talented performer has quickly and justly earned. Channeling just a dram of Judy Holliday’s legendary performance — her original Billie’s strangled Betty Boop soprano, her ditzy-like-a-fox scene pivots — Arianda takes the physical comedy further, but never too far: Whether she’s trying to outrun the train of her peignoir or pouring herself a brimming water glass of gin, she invests everything she touches with comic energy. Simply sitting at a desk and signing papers turns into a Keatonesque clinic in the law of conservation of motion. Not a syllable she utters, not a move she makes is wasted, and when she makes her majestic, malapropic declarations (“This country with its institutions belongs to the people who inhibit it!” “Inhabit it.” “Inhabit it!”), she transcends the dumb dame of old and becomes something we all recognize and root for: us, the information-soaked yet perpetually uninformed citizens of this hobbled democracy. If some of its once-zippy apothegms (“When you steal from the government, you’re stealin’ from yourself, you dumb ox!”) now sound perilously close to jokes — or worse, heresies — and its belief in the elevating power of knowledge childlike, maybe we should consider what really needs revision: the play, or our atrophied ideals, which we’ve lately seen mutated and abused on Glenn Beck’s chalkboard. (A little knowledge, it turns out, is still dangerous, and in ways Garson Kanin never considered.) Arianda’s Palin-in-reverse performance is technically perfect, but it’s more than that: She’s traveled to a realm beyond cheap irony, to a place where the naïf can still shame us with the simple truth. She’s a reminder that sometimes it can be that simple — and indeed, it must be, if we’re not going to perish of our cynicism.

At the Cort Theater.

Photo: Carol Rosegg