Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., has just opened a delicious revival of Garson Kanin’s 1946 play, Born Yesterday. The original Broadway production starred Judy Holliday as showgirl Billie Dawn, and she won a Best Actress Oscar for that role in the 1950 movie.
Ford’s has kept Kanin’s script intact, and director Aaron Posner explained that they believed this comedy about personal transformation and “the complex underbelly of politics” would resonate with today’s audiences (Ford’s press release).
It does. The stage is dominated by self-made tycoon Harry Brock (Ed Gero), an overblown egoist who comes to Washington to buy favorable legislation from spineless Senators who will then share the wealth they’ve all created. Brock can be described in “B” words: belligerent, blustering, bellowing, beastly. His live-in girlfriend is Billie Dawn (Kimberly Gilbert), and he habitually refers to her as “a dumb blonde.”
While some of the play is over-the-top screwball comedy, the guts are more serious. Brock’s alcohol-sozzled lawyer Ed Devery (Eric Hissom) declaims that the curse of civilization is “don’t-care-ism,” and Harry Brock flourishes in this atmosphere, flaunting his power as an amoral bully who can buy whatever he wants. He is a misogynist who treats Billie with the back-of-his-hand, and treats Washington politicians as just another cowering herd for him to round up. There is no question that Brock’s central belief is that he is above the law.
Left (l to r):Cody Nickell (Paul Verrdall), Kimberly Gilbert (Billy Dawn), Edward Gero (Harry Brook).
Act One finds Billie playing out her dumbness to the max. She flounces around and cheerfully serves her purpose as a playmate doorstop. The only hint we have that Billie has functioning gray cells is when she gleefully beats Brock at gin rummy
Things shift in Act Two, as Brock hires a young writer to make Billie smart enough to “fit in” with the Washington powerbrokers Brock expects to conquer. Paul Verrall (Cody Nickell) is the writer, and he delights in accepting Brock’s challenge, saying “A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.” He immerses Billie in books and makes her discuss what she’s read. In Act Two, her awakening marks the “sunrise” of a new day, and captures the “born” essence of the play. While she achieves a new and fuller identity, Brock remains a narcissistic bully. When she leaves him for young writer Verrall, Brock is uncomprehending: “He could’ve had a hundred grand. She could’ve had me. Now, they got nothin’.”
Below: The cast of Born Yesterday. Scenic design by Daniel Lee Conway, costume design, Kelsey Hunt.
Scenic designer Daniel Lee Conway has created a set as huge as Harry Brock’s ego—an opulent two-story Washington hotel room that costs $235 a night ($3,184 in 2018 money). The U.S. Capitol looms largely in the room’s massive window, hinting at how accessible its political inhabitants are to shady dealings. Costume designer Kelsey Hunt has outfitted everyone in tailored suits, and has marked Billie Dawn’s transformation by clothing her first in sexy lingerie, and then in a classic white shirt, black slacks, and reading glasses!
Right: Kimberly Gilbert (Billy Dawn), Cody Nickell (Paul Verdall).
I was transfixed by the absence of microphones in this play, and asked star Ed Gero how it felt to perform Harry Brock using his natural voice. Gero has a phenomenal voice, and I’ve been a great admirer for years: he’s won four Helen Hayes Awards, has been nominated 16 times, and has a remarkable career that ranges from Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, to Mark Rothko in RED, to Antonin Scalia in The Originalist, to Sweeney Todd, and Henry IV.
He very kindly explained that his training emphasized projecting his voice by using correct support. But that it’s not about volume: “What matters is articulation (making sure you get the muscles of the tongue to pronounce correctly, and hit all the final consonants) and inflection (the musicality of each line) for clarity of meaning.” He said it’s important to keep hydrated, to rest the voice during the day, and to warm up before the performance.
Left: Todd Schofield (Senator Norral Hedges), Naomi Jacobson (Mrs. Hedges), Edward Gero (Harry Brock).
Gero enjoys performing at Ford’s Theatre because it’s a 19th century house built for fully-supported voices—“so this house is acoustically right up my alley.” He also explains that, minus microphones, actors need to listen for the “speed limit to speech”—that once the sound gets projected, acoustics make those waves bounce around: “If you go too fast, there are still sound waves … that will cross with new waves from the rest of the sentence” and create a muddy jumble of sound. The good news is that “Ford’s has a very human speed of tone breakdown. You can move it along at a good clip without losing clarity.” (Ed Gero to AH, 10/10/18)
Playwright Garson Kanin would be delighted with Ford’s 2018 production. Born Yesterday seems as if it were written yesterday. It is a resonant play for our barking times.
By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer
Born Yesterday will be at Ford’s Theatre through October 21, 2018. www.fords.org.
Amy Henderson is Historian Emerita of the National Portrait Gallery.