All of these plot elements combine into a delicious stew in Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday, a comedy from 1946 that feels fresh and vibrant in director Mark Clements' spirited production at the Walnut.
Harry Brock, a thug who's parlayed a string of junkyards into a fortune, and Billie Dawn, his ex-chorus girl paramour, have been together for years, but they still haven't figured each other out. Whenever Billie opens her mouth, Harry fixes her with a hard, suspicious glare, as if he's worried that she'll finally figure out what he's been up to. Billie, meanwhile, seems blissfully unaware of how corrupt Harry is, but that's no surpriseshe's unaware of a lot of things. ("For the chorus, she was smart enough," says the always-blunt Harry.) She's got a body that would drive most men to distraction, and a screechy Bronx accent that might drive them to suicide. When Harry and Billie play gin rummy together, she seems to be in another world, blithely bopping a leg up and down in time to the music in her head. Yet she always wins their gamesa hint that there's more to her than meets the eye. Eventually Harry hires reporter Paul Verrall to give her the education and breeding she needs to succeed in Washington society, but Billie's lessons soon prove to be Harry's undoing.
Kanin's observations about political power and human nature still ring true, but the best things about this production are the lead performances. As Harry, Marco Verna is both intimidating and casually nonchalant. It's a tricky combination to pull off, but Verna's take on Harry is strong and seemingly unaffected. As Billie, Kate Fahrner has a tough challenge of her ownBillie seems completely brainless in the play's opening moments, but she eventually shows just how wise she is, winning over not only Paul but the audience. Fahrner is completely charming and, to use one of the new words Billie learns, superbor, as she would say it, "supoib."
There are good supporting turns by Greg Wood as a slick senator, David Hess as Harry's conscience-stricken attorney, and Fran Prisco, who gets a lot of laughs as Harry's henchman. But as Paul, the reporter-turned-teacher, Darren Michael Hengst seems a little too reserved. He's likable, but never seems passionate enough about learningor Billieto be completely convincing.
Colleen Grady's costumes are terrific, but Todd Edward Ivins' hotel room set is dominated by a garish purple theme that competes with the dialogue for attention.
As long as there are crooked businessmen and venal politicians, Born Yesterday will seem relevant. (Indeed, this version opened just two days after a Pennsylvania State Senator was convicted on 137 counts of corruptionat a courthouse just a few blocks away from the Walnut Street Theatre.) But, thanks to director Clements and his engaging cast, the parallels to current events don't matter as much as the laughs and the engaging characters. Both shine through in this very satisfying production.
Born Yesterday runs through April 26, 2009 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $10 to $60, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by visiting the box office.