Born Yesterday Review. The Dumb Blonde At 65.
Whatever else its charms, “Born Yesterday” is most noteworthy for having made a star out of Judy Holliday, and for having given the dumb blonde joke a novel twist. Its latest revival with Jim Belushi and Robert Sean Leonard is most worthwhile for introducing newcomer Nina Arianda to Broadway audiences.
Those of us lucky enough to have seen Nina Arianda in her indelible Off-Broadway debut last year in David Ives’ s “Venus in Fur” at the Classic Stage Company knew we would see her again. In “Venus in Fur,” Arianda played an actress auditioning for the part of a 19th century dominatrix – and then as the play progressed, becoming the dominatrix. In that new play, the audience first saw her yelling four-letter words while carrying a huge black leather bag, dressed in black leather, stilettos, and a silver-studded dog-collar.
In “Born Yesterday,” she plays Billie Dawn, the quintessential dumb blonde with a screeching Jersey accent and wardrobe of expensive dresses given to her by the man to whom she has served as mistress for nine years.
A lot can happen in 65 years.
Garson Kanin wrote “Born Yesterday” for Broadway in 1946.
Kanin is best-known for his screenplays with wife Ruth Gordon for battle-of-the-sexes films starring Spencer Tracey and Katharine Hepburn (Adam’s Rib, Pat and Mike), and there is a comic varnish to the relationship between Billie Dawn (Arianda), a former chorus member in “Anything Goes” (!) and her thug-like millionaire boyfriend, Harry Brock (Belushi).
Brock made a killing by dealing in the junk business during World War II and he and his entourage have now arrived at a huge hotel suite in Washington D.C. where Brock intends to get a Senator to change the laws to enable Brock to make even more money. In an effort to polish his image, he wants Billie to become more refined:
“You gotta learn to fit in. If not, I can’t have you around, and that’s no bull,” Harry tells Billie.
“You could use a little education yourself, if you ask me.”
“Who asked you?”
“So shut up.”
Brock hires a courtly journalist Paul (Leonard), who happens to live in the hotel, to tutor his “dumb” girlfriend – with unintended consequences.
It is a story that has been revived many times, most recently on Broadway in 1989 starring Ed Asner and Madelyn Kahn, and as a 1993 film starring Melanie Griffith, John Goodman, and Don Johnson.
Part of its continuing appeal is in the power shift in the second half, how Billie gains an education and the upper hand. It also contains the kind of quick and dirty dialogue that a later generation associates most with Jackie “To The Moon, Alice” Gleason. But let’s face it, the twist of her emerging smarts is no longer novel (“Legally Blonde,” Goldie Hawn), and much of the humor remains rooted in how dumb she is. She doesn’t know what the Supreme Court is. Even when Paul opens up the world of thought to her, she complains that it is disturbing her calm: “I started in thinking and I couldn’t get to sleep for ten minutes.” Her ignorance is coupled with innocence, honesty and a good heart, all of which is meant to charm the audience into falling in love with her (as does Paul) and simultaneously to give us license to condescend to her (as does Paul), guilt-free.
Still, “Born Yesterday,” at 65, need not be retired. It still works when there is the right chemistry among the three principal actors. (It is a measure of how old this play is that its cast numbers 15: hotel staff, advisers, the senator and his wife.) Both Jim Belushi and Robert Sean Leonard are playing familiar characters for them – Belushi (now star of the TV show “The Defenders”) brash, easily annoyed; Leonard (best-known now for “House”) intelligent and sardonic. But their characterizations lack the full comic gusto and energy to play perfectly off of Nina Arianda. Belushi’s brashness leans too much towards scary, especially in a scene that we would now label domestic violence, and Leonard’s supposed ardor for Billie seems a bit too detached. There is enough of a spark here to expect that these interactions will improve with time.
There might be some irony in Nina Arianda, a virtual unknown, being the best thing about “Born Yesterday,” despite the draw of two popular performers, but it should not be a surprise: The play is built around the character, and the character demands somebody with great comic timing (check) who is both beautiful (check)… and intelligent: That Nina Arianda is a remarkable actress is most evident from the contrast between her performance as Billie and that of Vanda, the part she played in “Venus in Fur.” It will surely become even more obvious in her next role, whatever it is.
At the Cort Theater
Written by Garson Kanin
Directed by Doug Hughes
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