The world has certainly not moved on much in the past 70 years, it seems. Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday, currently running at the San Francisco Playhouse, is set and written in the febrile political world of 1946, and clearly shows that money talked then, as we know it still does today. Corruption and politics notwithstanding, though, this is a fabulous piece of theatre – serious in its undertones, but also brilliant comedy – courtesy of Playhouse Directors Bill English and Suzi Damilano.
Harry Brock – a self-made but thoroughly unscrupulous businessman – is on a visit to Washington DC to clinch some deals and – while he’s about it – bribe Senator Norval Hedges as well. Tagging along on the trip is Billie Dawn, Harry’s long-suffering girlfriend (or long-term fiancée), a former showgirl with few illusions, if any, as to her potential in life. Harry treats her badly, uses her mercilessly, and she’s the one on whom he takes out his anger, frustration and ill-tempered mood-swings. She’s also the ‘sleeping partner’ in his business, signing – without a murmur and with bored resignation – whatever contracts are put before her by Harry’s legal advisor, Ed Devery, who’s literally being driven to drink, trying to keep Harry in line, and his deals on track.
Enter, then, Paul Verrall, a sharp investigative journalist who senses a good story in Harry – and what he suspects to be his corrupt methods of business. He has no time for the shady practices which Harry personifies, and he’s also appalled by the way in which Harry treats Billie. He therefore readily accepts Harry’s offer to take on the job of educating her, and plies her with intellectual reading material, refines her speech, and generally instills in her a sense of self-pride – and ultimately self-confidence.
Michael Torres is marvelous as Harry – boorish, uncouth and a typical bully. He’s very defensive about who he is and where he comes from, and little realizes that the worse he behaves, the more idiotic he looks, and the more he gives himself away.
Millie Brooks, with a great sense of timing, is immensely appealing as Billie – trying hard to be terribly blasé, but failing to hide her vulnerability and hurt in the face of Harry’s anger. She visibly blossoms, though, as her latent intelligence and sense of responsibility – under Paul’s guidance – are revealed.
Jason Kapoor is calm and measured as the journalist, playing him as shrewd, smart and very decisive when he needs to be, but also surprisingly tender in his relationship with Billie.
As Ed Devery, Anthony Fusco its wonderfully convincing as the hapless lawyer treading a fine line between humoring Harry and attending to his business arrangements, while trying to prevent his unchecked drinking habit from getting the better of him.
Gabriel Montoya is brisk, efficient and commanding as Harry’s son, Eddie, rushing around to make sure that all wheels are suitably well oiled in order that his father’s somewhat dodgy train stays on the track.
Louis Parnell is always good value, playing the suave and disingenuous senator – who’s never, of course, even heard the word ‘corruption’ – ably backed up by Terry Bamberger as his ever-supportive political wife.
In the supporting roles, Marty Lee Jones, Casey Robert Spiegel and Melissa Quine have virtually no lines, but succeed brilliantly in conveying a sense of hilarity by what they don’t say – certainly a case of actions speaking louder than words!
Skillfully directed by Susi Damilano. Born Yesterday boasts the imaginative set design that we’ve come to expect from the Playhouse, as well as the high standards of both the creative and production teams.
If you miss this one, you’ll probably regret it!
Born Yesterday runs at the San Francisco Playhouse until March 10th. For more detail, and for tickets, visit the Playhouse website.
Photos by Jessica Palopoli