Born Yesterday: Theater Review

Garson Kanin’s 1946 comedy gets a fresh burst of vitality from newcomer Nina Arianda.

Jim Belushi and Robert Sean Leonard will draw audiences to director Doug Hughes' update of the 1946 Broadway comedy, but breakout star Nina Arianda steals the show.

NEW YORK -- The marquee names in Born Yesterday are Jim Belushi and Robert Sean Leonard, and their television profiles are likely to draw the tourist traffic. But it’s breakout star Nina Arianda tackling an iconic role in a beloved chestnut that hardcore theatergoers won’t want to miss.

The word was out about Arianda thanks to her head-turning debut Off-Broadway last season in Venus in Fur. But taking your first Broadway bow in a role inextricably linked to the great Judy Holliday requires moxie as well as talent. The relative newcomer proves she has both to spare in an enchanting turn that’s gutsy, hilarious and fully inhabited. Looking like Lady Gaga in ‘40s glamour-wear, and sounding like Cyndi Lauper, she brings both cool authority and a gangly, girlish presence that makes her as adept at physical comedy as she is with her inspired timing of Garson Kanin’s dialogue. It will be fascinating to watch where this gifted young actor’s career takes her.

Director Doug Hughes (Doubt) doesn’t try to goose the 1946 comedy with contemporary perspective. (Anyone who sat through the egregious 1993 screen remake with Melanie Griffith knows that updating this plot doesn’t work.) Instead, he lets the play stand on its own idealistic, mid-century terms in its certainty that honesty and Constitutional integrity will always win out over big-money muscle and corporate and political self-interest. Even if many in the audience are likely to roll their eyes and think, “Yeah, good luck with that,” it’s pleasurable to escape into the fantasy of less cynical times.

Hughes also respects the shop-worn mechanics of the three-act play, with its conveniently timed entrances and exits through multiple doors on a single set. And what a set. Period ostentation is one of designer John Lee Beatty’s specialties, and this swanky D.C. hotel suite -- all dusky blue, black, cream and gold, with splashes of regal red upholstery -- is a stunner. Ditto Catherine Zuber’s sharp costumes.

Arianda plays Billie Dawn, a showgirl plucked from the chorus – she had five lines in Anything Goes, she proudly points out – by New Jersey junkyard millionaire Harry Brock (Belushi). Aided by his once-principled, now-anesthetized legal factotum Ed Devery (Frank Wood), and by a Senator (Terry Beaver) whose influence can be bought, Harry has come to Washington to expand his empire.

Blind to his own uncouthness yet mindful of Billie’s after her encounter with the Senator and his wife (a very funny Patricia Hodges), Harry begins to think her lack of sophistication will be a social liability. He hires political journalist Paul Verrall (Leonard) to give her a cultural makeover. Billie up to now has been happy being the dumb blonde. “I got two mink coats,” she says, justifying her lack of intellectual curiosity. But when she gets an unaccustomed hunger for knowledge and a yen for Paul, Billie’s eyes are opened to Harry’s corruption.

Leonard gets the least showy of the central roles in ultra-earnest Paul, who spouts noble speeches about truth and decency. But the actor makes him an appealing straight man; he’s smart, sincere, and believably caught off-guard by Billie’s directness and by his sudden feelings for her.

Harry is a brutish braggart, never talking when he can shout or making a request when he can demand something. Belushi gets the bullying attitude, the self-inflated arrogance and the barely concealed menace just right, revealing the briefest flashes of insecurity and class envy. He also shows that underneath all the intimidating bluster, Harry really is crazy about Billie.

But this is newcomer Arianda’s show. Her scenes with both co-stars are terrific, and it’s when she’s onstage that the polished production really sparkles. OK, so she doesn’t match Holliday’s winsome tenderness in the role. It’s likely nobody ever will. But her comic line readings are priceless, and her agitation and growing sense of unease as she starts to think for herself are equally persuasive. There’s real satisfaction in seeing her turn the tables on Harry.

Fans of George Cukor’s 1950 film (and who isn’t?) will spot echoes of Holliday in Billie’s offstage squawk of “Whaaaat?!?” every time Harry summons her, or the mostly silent scene in which she slaughters him at gin rummy. But Arianda also brings fresh angles to the character, particularly when Billie is off in her own world. It’s strangely endearing to watch her pour a half-pint of gin and then sip it like a kid with a slurpee cup. And seeing her struggle to cross the room carrying two drinks while trying to outrun the black lace train on her robe might be worth the price of admission alone.

Playing a character absolutely lacking in pretense or dishonesty, Arianda demonstrates that she’s the genuine article.

Venue: Cort Theatre, New York (Runs through July 31)
Cast: Jim Belushi, Robert Sean Leonard, Nina Arianda, Frank Wood, Terry Beaver, Patricia Hodges, Michael McGrath
Playwright: Garson Kanin
Director: Doug Hughes
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Music/sound designer: David Van Tieghem
Presented by Philip Morgaman, Anne Caruso, Vincent Caruso, Frankie J. Grande, James P. MacGilvray, Brian Kapetanis, Robert S. Basso, in association with Peter J. Puleo