“I’m stupid, and I like it!”
So declares Billie Dawn, a Broadway-dancer-turned-gangster’s-girlfriend in Garson Kanin’s ’40s comedy “Born Yesterday,” being performed at the Hale Center Theater Orem.
In this often light-hearted but ultimately heavy-handed romp, Billie (Alison Akin) is the main squeeze of the tough-talking, head-busting, senator-buying Harry Brock (David Phillips). When the two of them blow into Washington to purchase a few more Congressmen and stir up trouble, Harry realizes that Billie’s dimness and lack of social graces may be a liability to him (although he’s not exactly the Lord of Gloucester himself). So he hires “New Republic” journalist Paul Verrall (Shane N. Bayles) to tutor Billie in the ways of high society, grammar and current events.
Obviously, Billie and Paul fall in love. She gets smarter, speaking grammatically and realizing how much of the world she missed all this time because she was so busy being dumb. She realizes she’s been a major player in Harry’s shady business dealings, and that she’s been signing papers for him and his alcoholic lawyer (Stevan Davis; double-cast with John Lundwall) without knowing what they are.
Finally, she has to decide what kind of life she wants, and her decision doesn’t exactly make everyone happy, though the play ends happily … er, sort of.
See, while there is a great deal of good, solid comedy in this show, the script climbs up on its soapbox near the end and starts preaching to us. This production spotlights this preachiness, and the play winds up seeming like it’s supposed to be making a profound statement. This would be fine, except that the statement is: Corruption is bad for America. Well, duh. No one needs to be told that. We’re supposed to walk out of the play nodding our heads slowly in agreement, pondering what we’ve learned — but we haven’t learned anything we didn’t already know.
This is a shame, because there are some marvelous performances here. Akin is outstanding as the heart-meltingly beautiful, impossibly dumb Billie. She flits around the room, her mind obviously focused on nothing, speaking in a squeaky Brooklyn accent. She sings lyrics from “Anything Goes” and from the Gershwin song “They Can’t Take That away from Me.” (In one of the more subtle jokes, she sings these lyrics — “The way you hold your knife/The way you sip your tea” — but they come out as: “The way you hold that knife/The way I count to three.”) Billie is a sympathetic, lovable character, and the play is carried on Akin’s very capable shoulders.
Phillips does an excellent job as Harry, too. No one says “Shut up” better than New York tough guys, and Phillips does it with the best of them, speaking like Robert de Niro and buying favors and bossing people around like a guy you wouldn’t want to mess with. But he plays Harry as more than just a two-dimensional bully. When he tells his lawyer that he loves Billie, despite the way he treats her, he really seems to mean it.
Bayles is decent as Paul, though he plays the character a bit less earnestly and a bit more weaselly than he ought to. Paul should be a wide-eyed, idealistic, non-cynical reporter (if there are any like that); Bayles tends to hold the words in the back of his throat, then let them ooze out all whiny and drunk-sounding. Still, he provides a solid foundation for Billie to build on, and he’s a good actor.
The supporting cast is good as well, leaving no weak link in the show. Indeed, the only weaknesses are largely inherent in the script. The first act goes on too long and never really builds up to any high hilarity (though it IS funny); and there’s the aforementioned soapbox at the end.
But overall, the show is entertaining and charming, thanks largely to Akin’s extraordinary performance as Billie.
My experience with '40s comedy thus far has generally been that they're not very funny. I mean, what's the most often-performed '40s comedy? "Harvey." And is it funny? No. And that pretty much speaks for many of the rest of them. Even "Born Yesterday," while very funny in parts, certainly has more than its share of non-funny parts. You'd think once the war was over, everyone would be dying to laugh, but apparently not.
Another thing about the '40s: Was "In the Mood" by Glen Miller really that popular? Because every time I see a play set in the '40s, they always play that song. How did THAT song become the quintessential '40s song? Weren't there any other hits that decade? I ask you.