When I was in college I wrote a play that used Amelia Earhart’s mysterious disappearance somewhere over the Pacific as a central metaphor. The week it opened, a story was splashed all over the newspapers that researchers had uncovered new findings about exactly where her plane crashed. That’s just bad luck. And bad timing.
Madison Theatre Guild opened its first show of the season, Born Yesterday, on Oct. 5. The political comedy from the 1940s declaring that education and true democracy will always trump government corruption opened on the same day that the Senate voted on the contentious and controversial nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for the U.S. Supreme Court. The dissonance created by the conflation of the two narratives was impossible to avoid. That’s also bad luck. And bad timing.
But for those who can block out the news cycle, there’s a lot to like about the MTG production, directed by Jim Chiolino. It’s a Pygmalion story wrapped in a civics lesson, played out with stock characters and a good-triumphs-over-evil ending. The large cast hits all the basic notes of the period piece, on an attractive set (design by David Heuer) that depicts a luxe hotel room overlooking the nation’s capital city. The expansive suite is the temporary home for Harry Brock (Scott Stanley), a capitalist thug who has built an empire by buying and selling scrap metal. Just after World War II, Harry wants to add “war profiteer” to his list of dubious titles by scavenging all over Europe, but he needs a few government regulations changed in order to make his next million dollars. So, he does what every self-interested businessman does — he goes to Washington, D.C., to buy a senator.
Along for the ride is Harry’s girlfriend Billie Dawn (Jessica Jane Witham), a former Broadway chorus girl who gets anything she wants from her sugar daddy — including two mink coats — in exchange for sex. Worried that she might not be cultured enough to fit in with the D.C. movers and shakers, Harry enlists the help of the idealistic journalist Paul Verrall (David Neuser) to soften some of Billie’s rough edges. The smarty-pants writer is charged with giving her a crash course on government and socializing with the educated elite. But of course, after she reads everyone from Alexander Pope to Thomas Paine to Charles Dickens, Billie understands more than Harry intended. She learns about true independence and the people’s responsibility to participate in their government. With the help of her tutor/love interest Verrall, Billie gives her bullying boyfriend his comeuppance, which is long overdue.
Written by Garson Kanin in 1946, there are great reasons to do this play today. With the midterm elections approaching, it’s a good — if somewhat corny — reminder that we all need to do our civic duty and vote if our democracy is going to work at all. And the comic comparisons are undeniable between Harry — the loud, brash, tycoon who blusters his way around Washington — and our current commander-in-chief. The similarity in their attitudes about women, money, the press and the almighty dollar are striking. But to make this more than a funny museum piece with coincidental parallels to modern day, the key players have to be three-dimensional and the story has to have nuance. The MTG production doesn’t always succeed in that regard.
The largest characters — Billie and Harry — hold our attention most throughout the two-and-a-half hour play. Witham’s sweet spot is portraying women who are brassy, fierce and oozing sex appeal, so the former showgirl with the big voice is not a stretch. And she makes a fabulous “doll” of the ’40s with her bright auburn hair and slinky vintage dresses. (Hit-and-miss costume design by Lindsey Hoel-Neds.) But there’s a lot of spoiled brat in this Billie, and that doesn’t go away once she’s donned her glasses and brushed up on current events. Her overwhelming insecurity also remains, so instead of being liberated by the education she’s receiving from Verrall, Billie trades one kind of trick for another to get the attention and approval of a man. That makes her triumph in the end somewhat of a hollow victory.
And as the Neanderthal Harry, Stanley is a little too couth and measured. He looks terrific in fancy suits with his hair slicked back, and though the script mentions disgusting habits of constantly picking at his teeth and toes, the audience doesn’t see that behavior. Stanley is vocally and physically imposing from the start, but his pacing remains steady even when he loses his temper, which he does frequently. His tone also remains constant when he professes his love for Billie, which makes the match harder to believe.
The third point in the love triangle is Billie’s tutor, the earnest newsman played by Neuser. He is shortchanged by the script, which paints Verrall as a sterile professor. A bespectacled intellectual, Neuser seems amused by Billie’s lack of education — perhaps even a bit smug. Neuser has all the flag-waving, God bless America speeches in the show, which he delivers with aplomb, but the character remains as flat as the morning newspaper, and his attraction to Billie seems implausible.
Billie and Harry spend a great deal of time in the first act playing cards, to demonstrate to the audience how smart Billie really is, and that once she learns something, she masters it. In the script this overly long section is supposed to be done without dialogue — it’s really about physical comedy. But here the actors ad lib in character as they play their hands. This shows off the actors’ ability to improvise, but it also adds a lot of chatter where none is needed. And it’s easy to tell that these lines are not in the original version of the play. It’s a strange interlude that feels like a big departure from the rest of the story.
As dated as some of the references in the play are, there are a few chestnuts that ring true, no matter what your mood or political affiliation, such as Verrall’s line: “A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.” Go see the show. Then remember to go vote.