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Pittsburgh by Ann Miner


Born Yesterday
Pittsburgh Public Theater

Born Yesterday
Ted Koch and Melissa Miller
Garson Kanin wrote Born Yesterday during World War II, and when it debuted on Broadway in 1946, the country was in a state of post-war optimism. Though we're not currently enjoying a lot of that, Kanin's skewering of Washington politics and corruption, particularly the shady activities of lobbyists, is all too familiar territory today, though at the time of the play's debut, it was controversial. With an appealing underdog in Billie Dawn, a brilliant actress (Judy Holliday) in a breakout role, and Kanin's deft hand with comedy, Born Yesterday was a hit (still the Lyceum Theatre's longest running play), running for almost four years. The subsequent film was also a success, though the two Broadway revivals have not fared as well. The 2011 version, directed by Doug Hughes, was pretty well received by critics, and had another breakout star in Nina Arianda, but it only ran for 73 performances. However, the revival has resulted in an upswing in regional productions, providing a first chance for many to see this gem of a play on stage.

It's easy to root for Billie Dawn (Melissa Miller), girlfriend of scrap metal tycoon Harry Brock (Ted Koch). Billie is young, pretty, uneducated, and not so innocent—but she's not dumb. Brock has his reasons for keeping Billie around, though they don't involve respect or affection. As he thinks she is too rough around the edges for his current social circle, he hires idealistic journalist Paul Verrall (Daniel Krell) to give Billie a higher class education. With her natural curiosity and a new pair of glasses, Billie blossoms under Paul's tutelage, and her eyes are opened to much more than the classics of literature.

The film is such a well-known classic, and Judy Holliday's Billie such an iconic character, a challenge comes in casting the right actress: we expect more than a suggestion of Holliday, but will be disappointed if the actress doesn't also make the role her own. In Melissa Miller, the Public has made a good effort, though the portrayal is not smooth; the Holliday-esque punctuations (mostly vocal) come and go, becoming somewhat distracting. Miller is a more than capable actress, and the Kanin zingers are not wasted on her, but I found the end result a bit muddled. And, unfortunately, she has little chemistry with Daniel Krell as Paul—and there definitely should be some, as they fall for each other quickly and suddenly. His Paul is over-eager and a bit too weak, even while his interest in educating Billie is earnest. I would not be surprised if these actors settle more successfully into these roles as the run goes on.

Though Brock is concerned about Billie's social skills, he is himself blustering, crude and unrefined. But his success in taking advantage of the post-war scrap metal business (and cleverness and influence in nearly wheedling his way into a big government break to further that business) gives him power over those around him. Ted Koch pretty much nails the character in a complete performance here, without going into caricature. He is paired well with Michael McKenzie as sleazy lawyer Ed Devery.

James Noone has prepared another perfectly designed set, this time of a plush hotel room. Ted Pappas directs with a light hand, keeping things moving right along with Kanin's bright and rich script.

Born Yesterday runs through October 28 at the O'Reilly Theater for Pittsburgh Public Theater. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit www.ppt.org.

Cast:

Ken Bolden: Assistant Manager
Nik Duggan: Bellhop
James Fitzgerald: Barber
Jill Keating: Mrs. Hedges
Ted Koch: Harry Brock
Daniel Krell: Paul Verrall
Brandon Lambert: Bellhop
Amy Landis: Helen
Michael Mckenzie: Ed Devery
Karen Merritt: Manicurist
Larry John Meyers: Senator Norval Hedges
Melissa Miller: Billie Dawn
John Shepard: Eddie Brock

Ted Pappas: Director
James Noone: Scenic Designer
David Zyla: Costume Designer
Kirk Bookman: Lighting Designer
Barbara Rubin: Dialect Coach for Melissa Miller
Fredric H. Orner: Production Stage Manager
Kelly Haywood: Assistant Stage Manager


Photo: Pittsburgh Public Theater


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-- Ann Miner



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