Unless you were “Born Yesterday,” you will recognize the familiar tropes in Garson Kanin’s most famous play.
Politico magazine just published some reminiscences from Bobby Baker, Lyndon Johnson’s fixer and bagman.
If you are a political idealist who feels money has corrupted the system, get off your soapbox and browse Baker’s recollections. Cash, sex and booze lubricated the wheels of government in ways that were well hidden and widely accepted in postwar America. So when the idealistic young writer Garson Kanin wrote a play about a brawny businessman buying influence in Washington in 1946, the work was treated as a light comedy of personal hubris, not a political exposé.
“Born Yesterday,” which has not been professionally produced in the Twin Cities since Park Square’s memorable 2000 staging, opens Friday on the Guthrie Theater’s proscenium stage. The values that drove Kanin still animate the work, even if the idealism has faded in the post-Citizens United era. Corruption in Washington? Yeah, yeah, pipe down; I’m trying to hear what they’re saying about Kanye and Kim.
Kanin’s politics aside, he wrote a funny and well-made play with memorable characters. Harry Brock (Jeff Still at the Guthrie) made his millions selling scrap metal, and his brutish behavior befits a junkyard dog. He is coarse, and most of his abuse is aimed at his chorine girlfriend, Billie Dawn (Alexis Bronkovic).
Judy Holliday created the role on Broadway in 1946, then won an Academy Award for the 1950 film version. I will never accept that Holliday beat out Gloria Swanson (“Sunset Boulevard”), but a careful viewing of “Born Yesterday” helps explain the crime. Holliday mined the subtext in Kanin’s dialogue, the rueful restlessness in a character that often is reduced to a ditsy blonde. It was a strikingly intelligent portrayal by an actor who had thought her character through.
John Miller-Stephany, who directs the Guthrie’s production, said Kanin’s incisive dialogue and character conception allow that texture to surface.
“Over the course of the play, he deepens them to more dimension,” Miller-Stephany said. “Harry is a thug and a brute, but it’s very clear that he really does love Billie in his own way — a very dysfunctional and unhealthy way. She isn’t dumb; she’s just uneducated. One of the great things is to see them grow and change over the course of the play.”
The third leg of Kanin’s love triangle is a journalist named Paul Verrall (John Patrick Hayden). Harry asks Paul to “smart up” Billie so that she shows off better at cocktail parties where he is greasing senators. Paul embarks on the Pygmalion task, opening up Billie to music, art and literature, which provide her the tools to refine her mind and demeanor.
“She grows not only intellectually, but spiritually and morally,” Miller-Stephany said. “That’s a great story to tell this time of year.”
“Born Yesterday” continues the Guthrie’s recent tradition of counterprogramming “A Christmas Carol,” which plays through the end of December on the thrust stage. “The 39 Steps” was a smash in 2010, and “Charley’s Aunt” fooled enough patrons in 2011 to do well. Last year, Yale Rep brought in “Servant of Two Masters” with a cast led by Minneapolis actor Steve Epp. At first blush, it appears the Guthrie is competing against itself with the two productions, but as Miller-Stephany points out, the proscenium and thrust stages are always busy.
“I’m not certain we’re competing with ourselves any more than we are at any other times of the year,” he said. “We like plays for that slot that have a lighter, multigenerational appeal. You don’t want to see ‘Medea’ during the holidays.”
“Born Yesterday” has been revived twice on Broadway, most recently in 2011 with Jim Belushi, Nina Arianda and Robert Sean Leonard. Critics were mixed; a couple wondered if the 1946 play might be suffering from too many cobwebs. Such talk does not persuade Miller-Stephany that the production should be updated.
“It’s a very specific time and place,” he said. “It’s filled with references that put it in Washington in 1946, and I don’t see it could ever be successfully tampered with.”
That said, the engine of political corruption that drives Kanin’s plot is never out of style. The graft exists less on the retail level of cash envelopes and more in the realm of PACs that peddle influence by the rules — which were written by politicians influenced by special-interest money. At least they achieved real accomplishments in the days of the fictional Harry Brocks and the real-life Bobby Bakers. Maybe those were the good old days?