Audiences of Shakespeare’s plays are frequently surprised to discover how relevant the stories feel and how timeless the conflicts are, even though they were penned more than 400 years ago. That feeling of recognition and relevance was echoed in another (much more recent) period piece, at the opening night of American Players Theatre’s production of “Born Yesterday,” which runs in rotating repertory through September 22.
Set in the 1940s, the play focuses on an extremely affluent and corrupt businessman who storms into Washington to bully his way to even more wealth, with no regard for the law or the democratic process. Junkyard tycoon Harry Brock (a blustery David Daniel) is the uncouth blowhard at the center of “Born Yesterday,” cutting an undeniably similar figure to current politicians. Along with social commentary the show provides a ton of humor, the moral that “cheaters never win,” and the quaint sensibility that with education and opportunity, the American dream is absolutely attainable.
Smartly directed by APT Artistic Director Brenda DeVita, the production centers itself in the heady time shortly after the end of World War II. Pre-show music from the period plays in the outdoor lobby area even before audiences are seated. One look at the gorgeous set, designed with precise detail by Nathan Stuber, and viewers are immersed in a lush, black and white world of an extravagantly expensive hotel room arrayed in Art Deco design. Black and white photos of Washington D.C. complement the gold-trimmed, sweeping staircase, a sleek rounded bar, chic vases full of flowers, and a state-of-the-art record player.
The setting has all the class that the oaf Brock can buy for his errand; to bribe a senator and sway legislation in his favor. It’s also a comfortable home for the love and loyalty Brock has purchased, in the form of his lackey cousin Eddie (the delightful yes-man Josh Krause) and a not-terribly-bright bombshell and former chorus girl Billie, played exquisitely by Colleen Madden.
The plot is simple and predictable, but that doesn’t dampen the joy of watching it unfold. Entertaining heavy hitters in Washington, Brock can buy his way into meetings and influence, but he quickly realizes his platinum blonde plaything Billie doesn’t fit in with the political movers and shakers, or their wives. In fact the contrast is striking when Billie meets Senator Hedges (Jim Ridge) and his spouse (Sarah Day), both sporting charming Southern drawls and the elegant propriety that old money confers. So Brock throws his new money at the problem. He hires the annoyingly principled journalist Paul Verrall (a straight-laced Reece Madigan) to smarten Billie up and make her more of an asset in wheeling and dealing.
But the showgirl who has always traded on her looks doesn’t just learn enough to get by — Billie’s intellectual curiosity is sincerely awakened. And before you know it, she sees clearly that her life as a “concubine,” filled with parties and mink coats is not the one she wants to lead. As she learns about democracy, Billie and Paul plot Brock’s downfall, leading the tycoon's once principled lawyer Ed Devery (a sad and cynical John Taylor Phillips) to pronounce, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
If this sounds like the star-spangled idealism of a Frank Capra film, that’s not a coincidence. “Born Yesterday” author Garson Kanin was a great admirer of the famed director. In fact Kanin is quoted as saying, “I’d rather be Capra than God, if there is a Capra.” But this patriotic melodrama is lifted to an evening of sheer delight by clever staging and by the cast themselves.
As the self-made thug from New Jersey, David Daniels is all temperamental, overconfident swagger. Determined to get what he wants by any means and aggrandize himself at the expense of all others, Daniels makes himself physically imposing onstage. In one scene, his playboy robe hangs open like a king’s cape, making the actor look larger than he is. Lumbering across the stage, Daniels barks out commands, threats and challenges. Mispronouncing words in a Jersey tough guy patter, he’s every inch a slippery and scrappy hustler in an expensive suit.
Intimidating the other characters through his body language, Daniels’s Brock takes up more space on the couch than he needs, refusing to budge while another actor must climb over him to accept a drink. Unwilling to change his habits to accommodate company, he is also constantly removing his shoes and picking at his toes, even wiping his nose with a dirty sock. His patronizing treatment of Billie is absurd and abusive by today’s standards and it’s a tribute to Daniels that he incorporates both the reprehensible lines and the physical violence so seamlessly into his character.
Fortunately Billie is a formidable adversary—in the parlance of the show, “a very tough broad.” In spike heels and high fashion looks that accentuate her curvaceous hourglass figure (with help from costume design by Fabio Toblini) Colleen Madden’s Billie is well aware of her assets and loves being in the spotlight. She floats across the stage, playfully punctuating many of her lines with winks, a wiggle of the hips, or a shimmy. She’s also frequently humming bits of a song, often one that she used to dance to. Busting out in a sudden chorus with choreography, she relives her glory days as a showgirl when she is bored with conversation.
There are many subjects, Billie admits at the start, that she doesn’t understand, but just as Brock taught her to play a card game that she immediately mastered, she catches on quickly. Billie throws herself into her studies, at first to impress her attractive tutor and then to satisfy her own curiosity. With her pinched, high-pitched voice and golden curls intact, Madden morphs into a learned, gracious, and more engaged citizen. Her dresses become more conservative, but she comes alive. Listening to classical music in the hotel room strewn with books, her life changes from black and white to color (note the flowers in the vases from scene to scene) and with a playful twirl, she inspires everyone around her, from the soused lawyer to the housekeeping staff.
Throughout the play there is an abundance of physical comedy, which is executed deftly. It is as if DeVita invited her cast to find as many quirky bits for their characters as possible. While they are all funny, some should be edited out. The word-less card game at the end of the first act, for example, is amusing but repetitive and just makes the play feel longer.
But that is a quibble in this fun, period romp that suggests perhaps the more things change in Washington, the more they stay the same. At least in “Born Yesterday” the honest defenders of truth, justice, and the American way do win the day. As Paul says valiantly—in a line that earned spontaneous applause on opening night—“I want everyone to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.”
Post Script: The Elephant in the Room
So, does the scheming bully Brock remind audiences immediately of Donald Trump? Yes. Is the uncanny likeness manufactured by the production? No. It’s just part of the script. For example, early on Brock tells a journalist that it doesn’t matter what’s written about him, he can use it to his advantage. He’s more powerful than the press. When asked how much money Brock has, he dodges the question repeatedly. He shamelessly uses his power to try to manipulate government policy for his own ends, and grouses about laws that restrict free enterprise. He relies on a shady lawyer to fix any problems that come up and late in the play Brock simply yells, “You’re fired!” which resonates clearly. Playwright Garson did not live to see Mr. Trump in the White House, but somehow he anticipated him, with surprising accuracy.