Review by Tulis McCall
(25 Apr 2010)
There is one and only one reason this production works, and that is Nina Arianda. Well, the script has a certain strength to it as well, but the way the rest of the cast is bandying it about it is difficult to hear the fine writing. In the hands of Ms. Arianda, however, the text shines.
I reviewed Ms. Arianda previously for her performance in Venus in Fur in which she was spectacular. She is smart and makes choices with such precision that you can almost hear the gears in her head ticking off the possibilities before she settles on an action.
Billie Dawn (Arianda) is the live-in companion to Harry Brock (Jim Belushi) who has made a living off junk. A long time ago he realized that he could collect junk and sell it back to the original owners for a profit, and no one was the wiser. Now he is in a hotel suite in Washington that costs him more per day than Senators get paid in a week. This fact leads him to believe there is no reason that he can’t get exactly what he wants from the Federal Government.
Brock has been living like this for so long that it is affecting the people who work with him, like his lawyer Ed Devery (Frank Wood) and Billie. Devery sets up an interview with a local journalist, Paul Verrall (Robert Sean Leonard), and while that doesn’t go swimmingly, Verrall is the first person who comes to mind when Brock decides that Billie needs a touch up in the intellectual department. Washington will require more than money to conquer, and Billie will need her rough edges sanded off, even though it is Brock who could use an overhaul.
The Pygmalion story unwinds, and Billie not only flies the coop, she manages to remove a few strategically placed nuts and bolts before she does so. Brock’s empire is set to tumble as his gal gets away.
Although originally produced in 1946, Born Yesterday is sadly relevant today, not only in the sexual politics department, but in the actual politics department. As Billie’s head gets filled with ideas that keep her awake (“You know last night I went to bed and I started in thinking and I couldn’t get to sleep for ten minutes! … and I don’t know if it’s good to find out so much so quick!”), she begins to do the math on her life. She sees that Harry Brock is a paper tiger, a fascist, and stupid. This is where the dialogue gets dicey and Arianda’s skill at delivering the goods shines. “When you steal from the government, you’re stealin’ from yourself, you dumb ox!” and “This country with its institutions belongs to the people who inhibit it!” she yells just before she claims her own freedom.
So brilliant is Arianda that she shores up the rest of the cast who are, compared to her, on the dull side. Doug Hughe’s direction is unimaginative in the extreme, with people locked in to down stage left for most of the time, drinking copious amounts of liquor that never affects them, smoking with no conviction, and exiting the stage without the door slams that would punctuate the moment (a beautiful but overly fragile set) The performances are uneven, and most of the cast seems uninterested or uncertain, with the exception of Terry Beaver as Senator Norval Hedges who provides a perfect balance of fragility and bravado. Frank Wood, whose performance was sublime in Clybourne Park, speaks so fast in the first act that you cannot understand him, and though he slows down his as the evening goes on there is no heart in his words. Jim Belushi gives it a great try but he never connects the bat to the ball. Robert Sean Leonard looks as though he has other things on his mind for most of his time onstage, which makes Billie’s attraction to him believable only because Arianda is manufacturing it.
It is Nina Arianda who is a pleasure to watch from start to finish. She has done her homework and created her own world on the stage as Billie Dawn. This is a constellation of a character, and Arianda is the source of the sparkle. Come watch a star being born.
What the popular press said...
"Solid but inessential revival."
Charles Isherwood for NY Times
"That's what I call a rebirth. A new face has breathed fresh life into "Born Yesterday" ... Not that Garson Kanin's 1946 comedy was even a little tired. It is as deliciously witty and pungent as when it was born."
Joe Dziemianowicz for NY Daily News
"Nina Arianda emerges as a technically dazzling comedienne."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"There are two reasons to see the revival of Garson Kanin’s 1946 comedy, “Born Yesterday,” and they’re both named Nina Arianda."
Jeremy Gerald for Bloomberg
"The pugnacious Nina Arianda triumphantly makes the role her own, with perhaps just a gallant nod to Holliday's indelible performance."
Erik Haagensen for Back Stage
"'Born Yesterday' can, I think, be a much more effective play than it is here. What we see offers some laughs, but, mostly, shows its age of 65 years."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"No matter how familiar you are with the work, this fine production offers plenty of compelling reasons to return to 'Born Yesterday.'"
Roma Torre for NY1
"Arianda’s oh-so-vibrant Billie is a lovable original creation with a warm heart, great personal honesty and a clearly quickening intelligence."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey
"Breakout star Nina Arianda tackling an iconic role in a beloved chestnut that hardcore theatergoers won’t want to miss."
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter
"Something is decidedly off about the sensibility of helmer Doug Hughes' production."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...