The Rep’s “Born Yesterday” Is Funny, Empowering, Relevant

In 30 years, when “Born Yesterday” reaches its centennial anniversary, it could be just as empowering and relevant as it is today.

Garson Kanin’s comedy debuted on Broadway in 1946, depicting a rich man who wants power and a woman who finds her own strength. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ production shows just how pertinent the corruption scenario is to what’s playing out right now in the halls of power some 70 years later.

Under Pamela Hunt’s direction, this play draws lots of laughs, some well-deserved “Oooohs!” at some particularly harsh zingers, and some contemplative moments.

It is 1948. World War II is over, but the aftermath is very much on people’s minds, including Harry Brock. A Jersey boy turned self-made millionaire before the war, this kingpin of junkyards and metal scrap in Cleveland aims to conquer Europe. After all, the war left devastation — and junk — everywhere!

Mangled metal is just lying in cities, towns and even the countryside, begging to be snatched up for pennies on the dollar. Why, it would be a crime to not help clean up our allies’ war-torn landscape, right? Of course, this sort of thing needs to be handled through proper channels, and that means Washington D.C.

Harry, along with his entourage, arrive in the nation’s capital: “cousin” Eddie Brock, attorney Ed Devery, and his ditzy girlfriend Billie Dawn. You might remember her from “Anything Goes” –she was in the chorus, five lines. Whatsa matter? Aint youse gots no ‘preciation for the arts?

Sen. Norval Hedges, who is spearheading legislation designed to make Harry’s operation a whole lot easier, meets with them. He can be bought. Billie, she of the small brain and the big mouth nearly blows it. Gee whiz, you’d think she was born yesterday, she’s so ditzy!

Andy Prosky and Ruth Pferdehirt lead the cast as Harry and Billie, with Ted Deasy as Ed and Aaron Bartz as Paul Verrall also very strong. Bartz makes his Rep stage debut as the journalist of high moral fiber who does a favor for Harry that has lasting consequences.

Pferdehirt is sensational as Billie, who begins as a little more than eye candy, uttering the weirdest things at the most inappropriate times, in a voice that reminded me a bit of DC Comics’ Harley Quinn.

Her evolution is the story’s centerpiece, as Paul not only sands off her rough edges but polishes her into a precious gem of a woman. She may not always get the big words right, but she learns that money doesn’t buy happiness.

It’s no small thing to follow in the footsteps of legendary Judy Holliday, who originated the role on Broadway and won both the Oscar and Golden Globe for the film version. Ruth pulls it off with great aplomb.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that Prosky is equal in his own task, bringing to life a loud-mouthed jerk that you root against from the start. He reminded me somewhat of the great, controversial TV character Archie Bunker.

Harry is a stubborn, volatile, self-centered misogynist who will never learn that he can’t bully his way through life to get whatever he wants at any given time. If Archie had wealth, he would have been Harry Brock.

In some ways, Billie was a little like Edith Bunker, but eventually evolves into a more powerful, self-assured woman than Edith ever did. Prosky and Pferdehirt acted together in 2014’s “Noises Off,” and their chemistry was evident.

Deasy was enjoyable as well. The tall, lean actor’s character is perpetually in a state of partial inebriation, using alcohol to salve the pain of having sold his soul long ago for the easy money Harry waved under his nose.

Deasy’s delivery and tall form reminded me of the great character actor James Cromwell. By the end of this crazy affair, he finds a small bit of contentment, if not actual peace. He provided a nuanced portrayal of a deeply conflicted man.

I’m sure my jaw hung agape when the usher opened the doors to the Virginia Jackson Browning Theatre and I saw James Morgan’s set — a marvelously opulent hotel’s Presidential Suite. It may be grander than any D. C. hotel, with sweeping windows to one side of a set of French doors that Robert Wadlow wouldn’t have had to duck to walk through and a wide staircase leading up to the bedrooms, with an impeccably furnished living space. Everyone involved with the creation of that set and the furnishings deserves round of applause.

“Born Yesterday” was laugh-out-loud funny at times, cringe-inducing when Harry is at his worst, and relevant to the power-brokering and bully tactics we’ve seen across the nation’s capital.

Let’s not kid ourselves – deals, payoffs and partisan politics have been going on since the Founding Fathers settled on democracy as our form of government. Only today, the play seems to ring truer than ever.

(“Born Yesterday” runs at The Rep through April 8. For more information or tickets, visit www.repstl.org.)

Photo of Andy Prosky and Ruth Pferdehirt by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

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