Born Yesterday at the Shaw Festival (a review)

movie poster of Born YesterdayThe audiences at the Shaw Festival tend to be older, so we’re guessing that quite a few of the folks at the performance of Born Yesterday that we saw had, like us, seen the 1950 film version of the play, starring Broderick Crawford and Judy Holliday (who won the Oscar for best actress), at one time or another.  We’d also guess that most of them (like us) missed the 1993 remake, starring John Goodman and Melanie Griffith, 1993 movie version Born Yesterdaywho was nominated for, but did not win, the 1993 Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actress.

At any rate, the incidental music for the Shaw Festival’s production reminded us of Born Yesterday‘s history in the motion pictures; the curtain rose to a sweeping orchestral overture in the style of the vintage movies of the 1940s. And Deborah Hay’s performance as Billie Dawn surely owed a good deal to Judy Holliday, star of both the original stage play and the 1950 movie.

Nothing wrong with that, though; Born Yesterday is a thoroughly entertaining show, the best production of a classic American comedy at the Shaw Festival since You Can’t Take It With You ten years ago.  Deborah Hay is a scream in the lead role.

The play begins as self-made junk tycoon Harry Brock (Thom Marriott) is moving into a suite at a posh Washington, D.C. hotel. Harry is intent on cornering the market on all the scrap metal that’s littering Europe after the war (WWII), and his scheme, devised by his $100,000 per year personal lawyer Ed Devery (Patrick Galligan), depends on his owning part of the United States government as well.  Harry intends to bribe an influential senator (Lorne Kennedy) to get rid of laws that stand in his way.

Deborah Hay

Deborah Hay as Billie Dawn

But his first meeting with the senator and his wife shows Harry that his long-time mistress Billie Dawn (Deborah Hay), a former chorus girl from Brooklyn, needs some polishing up before she’s ready for Washington society. Harry hires a young bespectacled reporter, Paul Verrall (Gray Powell), to give his culturally deficient mistress a crash course in literature, the arts, and politics. To everyone’s surprise, she takes to Thomas Paine and Dickens right away, she likes the pictures at the National Gallery, and she turns out to have an instinctive feel for the dynamics of crooked business deals.  As this is a romantic comedy, she also falls for her tutor.

scene from Born Yesterday

Gray Powell as Paul Verrall, Deborah Hay as Billie Dawn

The storyline of gussying up a girl from the streets reminded us, naturally, of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Like Henry Higgins in that play, Harry Brock fails to foresee the full fruits of a cultural education for Billie Dawn.  After spending time with Paul, Billie Dawn realizes that Harry is crude, brutish, and ignorant.  Her political education also helps her realize that Harry is a crook and that his plan to buy a United States senator is (gasp) un-American.  (Emsworth has some thoughts on the ideological overtones of Born Yesterday in this post.)

The humor in Born Yesterday is not sophisticated, but it goes down easy.  The entire cast is marvelous, down to the small supporting roles (we liked especially Beryl Bain as Helen, Billie Dawn’s maid and friend, and Donna Belleville as Senator Hedges’s wife), but the tone of the show depends on Deborah Hay, who plays the brassy Billie Dawn to perfection.  Her repartee with Thom Marriott (as Harry Brock) is precious, and their hilarious ten-minute, mostly wordless game of gin rummy is worth the price of admission all by itself.

And of course it’s tremendously satisfying to see Harry get what’s coming to him. Harry Brock, a bully who knocks Billie Dawn around when she crosses him, may be the least attractive character you’ll ever see in a stage comedy. No lovable swindler he (like Max Bialystock in The Producers); meanness is his primary personal quality.

Vermeer -- Girl with a Red Hat

Vermeer's Girl with a Red Hat

For the second time at the Shaw Festival this year (see this post), we were delighted to see reproductions of some of our favorite art on stage; Billie Dawn brought home some color prints of pictures by Vermeer, Cezanne, and Gauguin from her excursions with Paul to the National Gallery.

The show we saw had some unintended drama. Outside the theater, the weather in Niagara-on-the-Lake was stormy, and throughout the play rolls of thunder were frequently heard (during scenes in which the skies of Washington, D.C., which were part of the scenery, were blue and cloudless!). In the final moments of the play, the power went off and the theater went dark for about ten seconds just as Patrick Galligan (playing the lawyer Ed Devery, and pitch-perfect as usual) was reaching the climax of his “justice and the American way” speech. Galligan was still holding his pose (to the applause of the audience) when the lights came on again.

We also appreciated the local connection: playwright Garson Kanin, who wrote Born Yesterday, was born in Rochester! Near as we can tell, he didn’t live here long enough for our town to make much of an impression on him, but we’ll take credit for him anyway. Aside from Rochester’s being the home of one of the finest actors of our time (Philip Seymour Hoffman), we don’t have many other show business types to brag about.

More thoughts about Born Yesterday — and Emsworth’s reviews of other Shaw Festival productions in 2009:

Left-wing ideology in Born Yesterday (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Ways of the Heart (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Play, Orchestra, Play (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Star Chamber (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)

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