By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
There is a point in the resolution of Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday when the character of Paul Verrall blurts out “I know you. I’ve seen your kind down here for years. What the hell do you guys want, anyway? You’ve got all the oil and all the lumber and steel and coal — what do you want now — all the people? All the laws?”
At the current American Players Theatre (APT) production of this classic Kanin work originally produced in 1946, there were several instances where the audience erupted into applause. The reasons were clearly not to commend the actions of the actors on stage, but to register agreement with the political sentiments Kanin presented and to allow for pushback on the present administration in Washington.
Indeed, while we live in interesting times, the partisan politics of gridlock and a lack of cooperation across the aisle seems to have festered in how many of us see Washington politicians and those that influence them legally or otherwise.
Directed by APT artistic director Brenda DeVita, the original three-act work has been condensed into two acts with an ensemble cast led by Colleen Madden as Billie Dawn, David Daniel as Harry Brock and Reese Madigan as Paul Verrall. These three form a triangle of beauty, brawn and brains as Billie is transformed from a mobster’s moll in the first act into a literate lovely in the concluding act.
Madden is charming as Billie, but there are times when, good as she is, her character fails to rise to the level of the originator of the role, Judy Holiday. Holiday, who filmed the movie opposite Broderick Crawford and William Holden in 1950, set a standard to which few have risen. That includes Melanie Griffith in a 1993 remake opposite John Goodman and her then-husband Don Johnson.
But Madden does capture the fire within Billie’s soul very effectively in the second act, when her captive spirit is freed by Verrall’s tutelage. She is voracious in her reading, scattering classic works of prose throughout the luxury Washington, D.C. hotel suite occupied by Brock’s party. Madigan does a good job, too, of acting as a reporter in search of a story and who is hired to “smarten up” Billie by Brock.
David Daniel could have notched up his role as the corrupt businessman looking to make a killing in Washington. The menace in his character was largely underplayed, making his character eminently more sympathetic, but straying from Kanin’s intent. Brock is basically a terrible human being, who gets what he wants by physical force and threats. At the beginning of the play, no one to date had stood up to him and so, like a bulldozer, he moves through life with impunity. It is his hubris to think that, with the advice of his attorney Ed Devery (John Taylor Philips), he can easily buy the favors of Senator Hedges (James Ridge) and bribe his way into even more power and fortune than he already possesses.
While the story is 72 years old, it still rings true. Those in the audience applauding Kanin’s sentiments would heartily agree with that statement. Men seeking power adorn themselves with thousand dollar suits and attractive, but dumb women to satisfy themselves and make them appear to be bigger than they are. In the end, Brock is shown to be a callow criminal, who is to be pitied, not envied. Billie moves from darkness into the light of possibilities.
Scenic design by Nathan Stuber is extraordinarily good with the set rising to two levels depicting a luxury suite with a massive bar and living room-lounge on the first floor and living quarters on the second. The appurtenances give it an overall rich Art Deco style and the costumes fashioned by Fabio Taolini with assistance by Daniel Tyler Mathews are also quite wonderfully rendered. Lighting by Michael Peterson and sound design and original music by Joe Cerqua are top notch, especially when one notes these are executed in an outdoor amphitheater setting.
Born Yesterday continues at the Hill Theater of American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin. For tickets call 608-588-9209 or visit their website.