- The Washington Times - Friday, October 7, 2005

Arena’s production of “Born Yesterday” has an air of yesteryear about it, from the drumbeat-pounding big band music and the tom-tom staccato of playwright Garson Kanin’s dialogue, to the comedy’s flag-waving sensibilities and the evocation of postwar America as a “can-do” country full of crazy schemes and unlimited possibilities.

Under the astute direction of Kyle Donnelly, the depiction of Washington in 1946 is so flamboyant and fun that you are immediately nostalgic for what the city was like in that era. Even the corrupt businessmen and politicos had a certain savoir faire, not the dreary, buttoned-down types you see today.

What makes you even more sentimental is the attitude of the press in “Born Yesterday.” Bespectacled reporter Paul Verrall (Michael Bakkensen, who comes off as a sexier, spiffier version of pundit Al Franken) may be a blazing advocate for a democracy that is as good as its people, but he also respects the boundaries of privacy. That junkyard baron Harry Brock (Jonathan Fried) has a mistress — the bombastic Billie Dawn (Suli Holum) — does not faze him a bit, nor does he feel the need to impart that information to his readers. He’s more interested in corporate scoundrels like Harry and keeping politicians honest.

A tall order, but Paul finds an unexpected ally in his quest for an unsullied government in Billie Dawn.

Harry, who has come to Washington to buy a couple of senators who can help him realize his plans for global scrap metal domination, employs Paul as a tutor to make Billie seem less like a chorus girl and more like a countess.

Miss Holum’s scene-stealing portrayal of Billie includes a dumb-blonde voice that sounds like a set of squeaky brakes and a wardrobe of figure-hugging fashions that display more curves than the Rock Creek Parkway, but her Billie is no bubblehead.

Just look at the hilarious, classic bit made famous by Judy Holliday in both the stage and screen versions of “Born Yesterday,” where Harry teaches Billie how to play gin rummy. They face each other across the table like sworn enemies, with Billie’s manicured nails snapping the cards and lining them up like tiny missiles. Before Harry can even get some small talk in edgewise, Billie crows “Gin.” Miss Holum is spectacular in the physical comedy the part requires, but she also finds moments of unanticipated poignancy when talking about her childhood and her relationship with her father. Her Billie is a bimbo you’ll root for.

She is similarly astute with book learning, inhaling whole volumes of Thomas Paine and Charles Dickens, turning their hotel suite at the Willard (which goes for an astonishing $235 a night. Unthinkable.) into a library complete with a dictionary, a bust of Shakespeare, and a spinning globe. Under Paul’s tutelage — and lessons that begin to stray into the realm of sex ed — Billie becomes a late-breaking patriot who also sees Harry Brock for who he truly is.

As Harry, Mr. Fried scarily captures the bullying menace of the character, but he also shows a vulnerability in his rowdy love for Billie. His feelings for her are the one thing he cannot bellow away.

Unfortunately, many Washington regulars are rather wasted in smaller roles, including Susan Lynskey as the maid Helen, Nancy Robinette as the distracted wife of a senator and Hugh Nees as Harry’s whipping boy.

Rich Foucheaux does manage to contribute a touching portrait of quiet desperation as Harry’s lawyer Ed Devery, a firebrand for justice now reduced to boozing and graft.

The play is also performed on the Fichandler’s round stage, which does not lend itself to the physical intimacy required for successful comedy. At times, the attempts to fill up and use all the space look desperate and contrived.

Overall, “Born Yesterday” beguiles with its portrayal of America as a place of cockeyed optimism, where good people triumphed over the craven and uncouth, and where democracy was not a concept but something diligently practiced every day.

***

WHAT: “Born Yesterday” by Garson Kanin

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Noon matinees are scheduled for Oct. 18, 19 and 26. Through Nov. 6.

TICKETS: $46 to $60

PHONE: 202/488-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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