Born Yesterday by all accounts was a wonderful play when it opened on Broadway in 1946, it’s been a wonderful movie (a couple of times) and it’s a wonderful play today. It’s a love triangle with a “message.”
Harry Brock (Jim Belushi), a rich, junk yard owner hoodlum who’s made a pile during World War II, comes to Washington D.C. to stop Congress from passing laws regulating businesses — especially his. Thinking his “dumb blond” show girl mistress, Billie Dawn (Nina Arianda) needs some polish to fit in with the fancy Washingtonians he meets — like the corrupt Senator he’s paying off to further his cause — he hires Paul Verrall (Robert Sean Leonard), a writer for The New Republic, to give her some education. Soon Billie’s books abound in Brock’s opulent two-story hotel suite — and what a set, with its lavish, winding staircase!
Billie takes to reading voraciously — looking up the hard words in a heavy dictionary — and her learning gives her new awareness of Brock’s dishonest shenanigans and brutality, while she and Paul fall in love. Billie and Paul’s plot involving Paul’s position as a journalist to “tell all” foils Brock’s corrupt plan: together they beat the big money and save the democratic process!
This is a beautifully written, hilarious and perfectly acted play. Arianda and Belushi are masters of comic timing and bounce off one another’s lines in a way one feels one could watch forever. Belushi has great appeal as the crude, cigar smoking, rags to riches gangster tycoon who’s sure money can buy anything. This play isn’t only about what Billie learns: Brock learns, too — that he’s wrong about that. Though types, none of these characters is a caricature. Belushi in moments of anger and regal command lets out all the emotional stops but he manages to convey not only Brock’s toughness and brutality but a softer, even tender inner level — kept well hidden! That’s quite a trick.
Nina Arianda, who just a year ago attracted attention in her first off-Broadway play, David Ives’ Venus in Fur, hits the level of real star power in Born Yesterday. Part of the humor, and a touching aspect of her character as Billie, is that, tall and long legged, she struts around the stage in sexy black lace lingerie that’s incidental to her though not to others, whether she’s struggling to understand a book or beating Brock at gin rummy. And that silent gin rummy game between Billie and Brock — it’s all in the action — is truly one of the great classic scenes in theater and is itself a reason to see this play, especially as these two do it.
Among the smaller parts, I was particularly enchanted by Patricia Hodges playing the corrupt Senator’s wife, clinging to her upper class decorum while watching her husband paid off by the arrogant Brock.
The issues are timely. Billie and Paul win out over Brock, and they aren’t the only winners: so are the American people, as the play takes pains to make clear. As Brock’s in-house lawyer Ed Devery (Frank Wood) tells him, not all Senators are for sale. Education — Billie — and the free press — Paul — are bulwarks against special interests: together they produce a win for democracy. One leaves Born Yesterday moved, smiling, and inspired by belief in education, the free press, and democracy.
Born Yesterday plays at the Cort Theatre on NYC’s West Broadway.
p.s. Watched movie of Born Yesterday, Billie Holliday and Billie, Broderick Crawford as Brock and William Holden as Paul — the play is better than the movie!