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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Great Performance In Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday

Also see Richard's recent review of Ripped from the News

The Marin Classic Theatre has opened with Garson Kanin’s 1950 classic comedy Born Yesterday at their San Anselmo Playhouse Theatre. This is a top flight production with television actress Marlene Shapiro turning in a superb performance as the beautiful, impossibly dumb Billie Dawn.

I first saw this production at the Lyceum Theatre in New York during the summer months of 1946. This was the first time I saw the wonderfully talented Judy Holiday give her brilliant performance as the chorus girl who wants to be intelligent. This performance launched Ms. Holiday as a mega star on both stage and screen. Also in the cast were Paul Douglas as the junk baron and Gary Merrill as her worldly teacher. The comedy was an instant hit and it played for 1642 performances in New York. Unfortunately Garson Kanin was branded a communist by the infamous McCarthy hearing because of this play. Ms. Holiday went on to star in the Columbia film adaptation in 1950 and she won an Oscar for her performance. Broderick Crawford played the wheeler dealer and William Holden took over the role of the reporter.

There was a revival of the play in 1989 and I happened to see Madeline Kahn in the lead role at the 46th Street Theatre. That cast consisted of Edward Asner as the rich capitalist and Daniel Hugh Kelly as the reporter/teacher. The revival ran for 153 performances. Hollywood Films produced a lackluster revival of the production in 1993. It starred Melanie Griffith as Billie. She was supported by John Goodman as her "keeper," Don Johnson as the good guy reporter and Edward Herrmann as a lackey attorney. It was a failure at the box office.

Born Yesterday takes place in Washington D.C. immediately after World War II and it centers around ex-chorus girl Billie Dawn who is being kept by head-busting millionaire junk dealer Harry Brock. He is an uncouth man who believes that money can buy anything. Harry and Billie are visiting Washington D.C., where Harry is trying to win a lucrative government contract by buying a few senators.

Harry wants to get Billie properly "culturefied," so he hires a respected journalist, Paul, to give his paramour a crash course in politics, history, and literature. After two months of intense training, Billie gets smarter, speaks proper grammar and realizes that Harry is nothing but a crook. She also realizes that she has been a major player in Harry’s shady business dealers since she has been signing papers for him and his boozy lawyer. Along the way, both Paul and Billie realize that they are in love with each other. The play tells us that corruption is bad for America which is very apropos in today’s business world.

Director David Kester has assembled a great cast with Marlene Shapiro playing the ex-chorus girl from Anything Goes. She has the great New York chorus girl accent that was prevalent in the '50s. Ms. Shapiro's voice is a cross between Judy Holiday and Vivian Blaine (Guys and Dolls) and she keeps the audience in the palm of her hand. Artie Gilbert as Harry and Sid Marsh as Paul counterbalance each other perfectly. The strong arm tactics of Harry are nicely handled by Gilbert. This could have been a broad characterization of a corrupt money hungry junk dealer but the actor shows some human qualities in the role. Marsh plays the intellectual Paul in a very easygoing manner. Rob Hogan is excellent as the boozy attorney, Ed Devery. The poor guy has a lot of running up and down the stairs of the two story set even when he is drinking very heavily. Special notice should be given to Wood Lockhart as a US Senator. In fact from his acting and looks, he could run for the Senate of the United States.

One of the interesting things about this theater is the huge length of the stage. The audience sits completely parallel to the stage. It reminds me of a television studio where film series are filmed before a live audience. The one set of a luxury suite in a Washington D.C. hotel runs the complete length of the stage, so if you sitting on the extreme left side front rows you have to stretch your neck to see what is occurring on the extreme right side. These actors get a great workout as they move from place to place at various times of the production. However, the set is excellent, and it looks like a suite at the Willard Hotel in Washington. D.C. Kester not only directed the production but designed the set.

Born Yesterday plays through Sunday July 21 at The Playhouse in San Anselmo. Tickets can be obtained by calling 415-892-8551 or visiting www.MCTheatre.com. Their next production will be William Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, set to open on October 11.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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