Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Nina Arianda

Broadway Review | Born Yesterday by Garson Kanin | Starring Jim Belushi, Nina Arianda and Robert Sean Leonard | Directed by Doug Hughes

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!

Review | Venus in Fur by David Ives | Directed by Walter Bobbie | With Nina Arianda and Wes Bentley | Classic Stage Company

… SM …

The Marquis de Sade died in 1814, which left over half a century for sadism to languish alone until masochism “arrived” in the 1870 erotic novel Venus in Furs — the author’s name, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, providing the word.

Ives’ play Venus in Fur roughly follows the extreme SM relationship between the man and woman in the novel, which allows for plenty of sadism, masochism, and a beautiful woman in Victoria’s Secret type of lingerie tempting and teasing a man.  Voyeurism, sexual revelation, sanctified by touches of social history and the “serious” overtones of a “classic novel” — you can see why someone thought this would be a good play to produce.  The play’s repetitive quality and predictability, and — a casting problem — a total lack of chemistry between the actors playing the man and woman, make it boring.

A young writer has spent the day auditioning women for his first play.  That he instead of the director is holding the auditions introduces a sense of authorial fantasy.  He’s closing up shop when a pushy blond woman thrust herself into his grungy office and insists on reading for the part.  Thomas is impatient, wants to get home to his girlfriend but Vanda won’t take no for an answer.  She’s not on the list for readings — her agent’s error, she insists (though it enhances the “is it real?” sense), and keeps talking.  Eventually she badgers him into letting her read for the part while making him read the male character’s lines.

From her first lines, she’s transformed from a street-wise, ordinary girl with a New York accent to the upper class 19th century countess she’s portraying.  She insists that he not merely mouth his lines but really play the part, thus enmeshing him in the archetypal slave and master relationship, with him the slave, that he’s written into the play and, through that, the “real” one with her.  They switch back and forth between play acting and being real, between their ordinary personae and the high class SM characters he’s written into his play;  with each switch, their power dynamic takes a further step toward reversal.   At the start, he’s in charge, auditioning, choosing:  by the end, victim and victor have changed places, and sexes.

In its criss-crossing of power arcs, Venus in Fur recalls Amiri Baraka’s (LeRoi Jones) Dutchman of 1964, seen in a recent revival at the Cherry Lane Theater, but whereas in Dutchman, in a similarly locked space, Blacks rise from victims to victors, here it’s the politics of feminism.

In contrast to the Obie award winning Dutchman, however, Venus in Fur doesn’t crackle and move with devastating speed toward a brilliant and unexpected denouement.  It repeats itself as it lurches toward a predictable ending.  Oh not again, one says to oneself (at least that’s what I said to myself, can’t speak for the rest of the audience) as the tall, shapely, and dramatically strong Nina Arianda once again takes off her street clothes to reveal her sexy black lingerie, or Victorian ruffles, or puts them on again, or off again, or on …   I thought she had a lot of stamina for changing clothes.  So much of this play is what the woman is wearing.  A move to boots could be called the play’s preliminary climax.  Wow!  Black boots.  Sensuality and sexual dynamics are in the line of sight but not in the air.

Venus in Fur plays at Classic Stage, on East 13th Street in NYC, through February 21.

Wes Bentley and Nina Arianda in Venus in Fur take a close look at Sacher-Masoch's well-thumbed novel. Photo courtesy of Classic Stage Company

Wes Bentley and Nina Arianda in Venus in Fur take a close look at Sacher-Masoch’s well-thumbed novel. Photo courtesy of Classic Stage Company

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