Saturday, December 7, 2013

"Born Yesterday" at the Guthrie Theater

The 1946 Broadway play Born Yesterday was adapted into a 1950 movie that has become a classic. True to form, I've never seen it, so I had the great pleasure of experiencing it for the first time on stage, with no expectations or comparisons. I absolutely loved it and now understand why it's such a classic. Smartly written by Garson Kanin, funny, taking serious digs at the corruption of politics that is more true today than it ever has been, and featuring some classic characters, it's a beautiful piece of theater expertly brought to life by the Guthrie and this perfectly cast ensemble of actors.

If, like me, you've never seen the movie, here's a brief plot summary. Harry Brock, a very wealthy and corrupt "business man" (he's a "junk dealer," which I think means he buys and sells scrap metal and such), moves into a hotel in Washington DC in order to buy a senator or two to make things go his way. His entourage includes his mistress, former chorus girl Billie, his lawyer Ed, and his personal assistant/cousin/bartender/body guard Eddie. Harry is worried that Billie's unsophisticated ways will be a hindrance while he's trying to schmooze the senator, so he hires journalist Paul to educate her. The plan backfires on him when Billie proves to be much smarter than he thinks and falls in love with learning. She is no longer willing to go along with his schemes (he's signed much of his property over to her on the advice of his lawyer) and along with Paul, devises a way to get out from under his thumb.

Judy Holliday originated the role of Billie on Broadway and won an Oscar for reprising the role in the movie. I hear that her performance is iconic, but since I've never seen it, I was able to enjoy Guthrie newcomer Alexis Brokovic's brilliant performance without comparison. She's an absolute joy to watch in every moment - her voice, the way she moves around the stage, the perfect looks and line delivery, the way she sorts her cards during an intense game of gin rummy. She makes Billie an incredibly sympathetic and real character as we witness her growth from a woman who's told daily that she's dumb to a woman who sees her own worth and realizes that she deserves, and desires, a better life that this empty one she's been living. At one point Harry laments, "All this trouble just because some dame read a book." Exactly. Born Yesterday is about a woman realizing her own power, and claiming it, through knowledge.

Harry (Jeff Still), Paul (John Patrick Hayden),
and Billie (Alexis Bronkovic)
The rest of the cast (directed by John Miller-Stephany) does a wonderful job as well, each one as perfect for their role as Alexis is for Billie. Two more Guthrie newcomers fill the roles of Harry and Paul - Jeff Still is so good as the tough-talking and at times menacing Harry that I wanted to boo him at the curtain call (but since I'm a Minnesotan I didn't), and John Patrick Hayden is charming as Billie's teacher and friend who opens her world. Familiar faces fill out the rest of the cast - Mark Benninghofen shows us lawyer Ed's increasing disgust with himself and the things he does for Harry, and Zach Curtis hits the right note as Harry's man Eddie, who knows his place. I also like that they cast students in the U of M/Guthrie BFA program in non-speaking roles; the Guthrie has a great farm system and uses it well.

Walking into the Proscenium theater before the show, I had to pause several times on the stairs to take in the incredible set (designed by Todd Rosenthal). Looking every bit the opulent hotel suite (that costs $235 a night!), with a high ceiling and grand staircase leading to the bedrooms on the second floor, everything is round - the chandelier, the table, the stools, the centered doorknobs, the walls of the room, even the shape of the stage itself - mirroring the US Capitol seen through the windows.

As I've mentioned before, my season seat in the Guthie's Proscenium theater is in the front row (aka the cheap seats). I like to call it shoe level, because the stage is directly in front of my eyes. This is a great show to be sitting at shoe level. The period costumes (by Matthew J. LeFebvre) are stunning, especially Billie's wardrobe of about a half dozen outfits, each more gorgeous than the last. The men's clothes aren't too shabby either, from Harry's flashy and colorful suits to the more classic look of his lawyer.

Kanin was asked in the 80s why his play was so popular. He answered, "The reason was Watergate. When the play was written it was a fable, but after Watergate it became a documentary." It really is a brilliant play in a top-notch production by the Guthrie (playing now through January 5). I'll leave you with my favorite quote (of many):
To all the dumb chumps and all the crazy broads, past, present, and future, who thirst for knowledge and search for truth, who fight for justice and civilize each other, and make it so tough for sons of bitches like you.