“IT’S A FREE COUNTRY!”
It’s one of the seven wonders of the American theater: Few sights on stage are as magical as watching Billie Dawn wise up. This dumb-as-a-rock good-time girl slowly warms to the whistle-blowing power that comes when she takes “We the people” personally. Judy Holliday, two years after standing up to Paul Douglas on Broadway, showed it again to Broderick Crawford in George Cukor’s 1950 film masterpiece. Two thirds of a century later, the transformation in Born Yesterday is just as enthralling and irresistible in Remy Bumppo’s current hit.
Garson Kanin’s cautionary 1946 drama, richly renewed in David Darlow’s sprightly staging, is fueled by post-war hope and the urge to wash Washington. After so many sacrifices to beat Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, Kanin reasons that we can’t go back to business as usual, meaning corruption in high places. If it takes a seemingly worthless bimbo “born yesterday” with two months of education who can barely read left to right to clean up a bit of the Beltway cesspool, so be it.
As with the education of Rita or teaching Eliza Doolittle her own tongue, Billie’s “dawning” is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, as wonderful as unlikely. The locale is a plush expensive $235-a-day D.C. hotel suite (gorgeously appointed by Grant Sabin) overlooking the Capitol. It’s occupied—or infested—by Harry Brock (Sean M. Sullivan, full-out nasty), a thuggish and selfish New Jersey junk tycoon.
This plutocratic punk is here to shake down Senator Hedges (milquetoasty Brian Parry) and his docile and domesticated wife (Maggie Clennon Reberg) into deregulating the acquisition of scrap iron from war-torn Europe. Gangster-crude Harry wants to surreptitiously set up a combine to create a cartel to corner the market in crumpled metal: If it takes an $80,000 bribe to a purchased politician, there it is. Also shut up and get out of my way or, as the iron king eloquently puts it, “Never crap a crapper.”
Assisting Harry’s predation is his hired-gun cousin Eddie (Drew Shirley), another goon and grifter, Helen (Maggie Clenon Reberg), a go-to and go-fer gal, and Harry’s flunky lawyer Ed Devery (Shawn Douglass), formerly a courageous D.A., now a facilitator of corruption who loves to see the bottom of a bottle. Observing Harry too close for comfort is a guest just down the hall, idealistic New Republic reporter Paul Verrall (the ever slyly persuasive Greg Matthew Anderson), an actual practitioner of the First Amendment.
Finally, and memorably, there’s the irrepressible 29-year-old airhead Billie Dawn (Eliza Stoughton, too wonderful for words). Having endured nine marriage-free years with her abusive scrap merchant (“I don’t have anything cheap except you,” sneers Brock), Billie is hard-boiled and unhappy. The famous gin game she plays with Harry all but seethes with fulminating passive aggression. If Billie is all too ready to be slapped into sense, well, feral Harry’s miscalculation is everybody else’s gain.
Wanting to smooth over Billie’s many rough edges, Harry makes a fateful decision: He’ll let bookworm Paul instruct her in government, literature, anything to give her a phony intellectual façade that might prove useful. Rising to this improbable occasion, Paul is eager to mold this Galatea for noble reasons: “It’s sort of a cause. I want everybody to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.”
The makeover takes these unlikely allies into uncharted territory: Billie learns how democracy is supposed to work if citizens can keep it clean. Paul loses his cynicism as he watches Billie blossom. Regretting his plan to upgrade his concubine, Harry exposes himself as a literal book-breaking fascist (no possible resemblance to our current President—put that out of your mind right now!). By now a not-so-stupid Billie senses it’s too late to go back to playing dumb. So, what’s in all these papers she’s signed that give her power over Harry’s junkyards, fake companies and stock portfolio anyway? Inquiring minds want to know.
Wising up the audience as well, Remy Bumppo’s worthy revival delivers 135 minutes of hilarious redemption. We revel in an old-fashioned well-made comedy whose craftsmanship Darlow honors with rambunctious results. Stoughton and Anderson are the sweetest odd couple to ever meet cute and stay real. Snarling Sullivan is the archetypal bad guy to more than earn a classic comeuppance. Douglass’s degradation is a 20th-century version of the Bard’s “First, kill all the lawyers.” You leave the Greenhouse Theater Center thinking maybe democracy can be saved piecemeal even if it seems lost wholesale.
photos by Johnny Knight
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Thurs – Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2:30
plus select Wednesdays and matinees
ends on April 30, 2017
for tickets, call 773.404.7336 or visit Remy Bumppo
for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago