Novelist Upton Sinclair once despaired that he had aimed at the public’s heart with his landmark novel “The Jungle,” but ended up hitting it in the stomach.
The same could be said for playwright Garson Kanin, who had politics on his mind when he wrote “Born Yesterday” but struck our funny bone with the circumstances and characters of this elegant comedy.
An apologia for the finer instincts of democracy, Kanin’s play, which is being revived to good effect at the Guthrie Theater, bears the indelible stamp of Billie Dawn and Harry Brock -- two street-smart savants who have climbed to the top of the economic ladder through dumb luck.
So sharply did Kanin draw these stereotypes that we tend to drift through the play’s earnest perorations against business greasing the political wheel. Yes, the game was rotten when Kanin wrote in 1946 and it’s only gotten worse. So can we get back to Billie and Harry, and how stupid they talk?
Harry (Jeff Still), a Jersey junk dealer, has checked into a deluxe Washington hotel suite (and it looks all of $235 a day in Todd Rosenthal’s elegant set). Harry has made millions, but now wants to expand his markets overseas and peddle the scrap iron littering postwar Europe. To do so, he’ll need to buy legislation, via a Senator.
However, Harry worries that his girlfriend, Billie (Alexis Bronkovic), an uneducated moll who flounces around in amazing outfits (by Mathew J. Lefebvre), will embarrass him in the Washington cocktail scene. (He’s not aware of his own rough edges?) Harry hires Paul Verrall (John Patrick Hayden) to educate Billie, and before you can say “Pygmalion,” the former chorine has picked up enough smarts to threaten Harry’s business.
John Miller-Stephany’s Guthrie production beats with enough of the entertaining rhythms here to provide fine entertainment. Still has divined the exact nature of Harry — complete confidence and utter cluelessness. Harry gauges intelligence by how much you have in your bank account.
Bronkovic’s Billie comes on awfully hot; a little overeager for laughs. For much of the first act, she seems to be in a different play. Once she settled in, on opening night, Bronkovic started teasing out Billie’s vulnerability and native intelligence.
Hayden, a bit of a poindexter in his glasses and tweed coat, imbues Verrall with righteous indignation at everything Harry stands for. But does he have the rakish edge that would lure Billie?
Then there is Ed Devery (excellent Mark Benninghofen), Harry’s dissolute lawyer. Once a bright legal light in the Justice Department, Devery’s dim eyes and thirst for booze illustrate the corrosive effect of money and corruption. This is the heart of Kanin’s play. But gosh, Ed is so sad. Billie and Harry? They’re funny!