"A LITTLE LEARNING is a dangerous thing," moralizes one of the characters in Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday, out of the depths of a drunken stupor. And the play could, if necessary, be reduced to that epigram and a couple of others, equally trite but true. But Kanin does such a good job of sugar-coating his didacticism that it usually remains palatable, even enjoyable. His "gems of wisdom" come in the rough, as drunken wisecracks or cute malapropisms ("This country belongs to the people who inhibit it,") and it is only in the final scene that the play seems to turn into a high school civics lesson.
Set in 1945, Born Yesterday remains remarkably, if depressingly, up to date in its two main themes--corruption and sexism. Harry Brock (Lorenzo Mariani), a nouveau riche junkyard magnate, comes to Washington to "buy himself a senator," bringing in tow his empty-headed mistress, an ex-showgirl named Billie Dawn (Sarah McClusky). Deciding that Billie needs a little polishing up in order to "fit in" with the Washington social scene, Brock hires Paul Verrall (Jerry Colker), an earnest young writer for The New Republic, to be her tutor.
But Brock gets a lot more than he bargained for. Verrall opens Billie's eyes not only to Dickens and Vivaldi, but also to the way Brock is exploiting her and "the American people." Billie and Verrall end up falling in love, scotching Brock's attempted bribery, and eloping.
The success of the play really hinges on the character of Billie--a part that was written for Judy Holliday--and sophomore Sarah McClusky carries it off well. She plays the part with an appealing naturalness and a total lack of self-consciousness but at the same time with so much sensitivity that the transition from submissive dumb blonde to independent woman is completely believeable. The voice is obviously imitation Holliday, but it's a good imitation and probably the only voice that would work.
The supporting roles are generally well-handled--with one glaring exception. The character of Paul Verrall, as written, is fairly unappealing--self-righteous and stuffy--but Jerry Colker succeeds in making him unbearably obnoxious. His face is frozen into an expression of supreme smugness, broken occasionally by a smile of self-satisfaction. He delivers his lines stiffly and in such patronizing tones that one wonders why Billie doesn't slap him instead of kissing him--or at least exclaim, as Brock does at one point, "Don't give me them Harvard College expressions on your face!"
But in general, the production is above the level of the usual Loeb Ex fare. Director Chris Harding has kept up a brisk, fast-talking pace that is well-suited to the play's 1940s flavor, and the production staff has worked wonders, considering the Ex's limited budget. The set for Brock's "$235-dollar-a-day" hotel suite comes complete with foliage, statuary, and Louis XIV furniture. And the costume crew seems to have had a ball decking out Billie in sequins, feathers, fake fur and silver lame.
Although Born Yesterday gets a little carried away with its good intentions, it remains a thoroughly entertaining piece of propaganda for truth, justice and the American way. Kanin's analytical abilities leave something to be desired. His conclusion that the excesses of the free enterprise system could be avoided if each American did his or her duty as a citizen is, to say the least, simplistic. And it should be noted that his "liberated" woman makes her exit on the arm of a paternalistic and protective male, who says he loves her for her mind but neglects to mention that he controls it.
But even if one takes issue with Kanin's logic, it is still possible to enjoy the play. Kanin obviously identifies with the character of Paul Verrall, the wise and patient teacher, but he manages to deliver his lessons with a lot more finesse.
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