By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor
There was a time when the theatre was used not only for entertainment, but to inform and even teach audiences something pertinent to their lives, and not only something political, but basic to living. Well, when Garson Kanin wrote the brilliant script for “Born Yesterday” in 1946, the Second World War had just ended and we were the super power of the world! Or so we thought. Many of us also thought (and things haven’t changed much today) that we could stop thinking about and paying attention to what the “government” was doing to and/or for us. This production, in a nutshell, disputes that premise and shows us that the government is not “they or them,” the government is “us”! We do have a say and a stake in what happens to us. And we can never stop paying attention to the world around us.
Garson Kanin’s crisp dialogue and smartly drawn characters are meant to bring us up short and it plays as if it were written only yesterday. The story is about a self-centered and boorish tycoon Harry Brock (Ed Gero) who has come to Washington with his supposedly dim-witted girlfriend to game the political system. He needs a senator to bribe in order to pass legislation that will undo governmental regulations and benefit Harry’s junk (seriously!) business. Meanwhile, Harry realizes that his uneducated, but street-smart, mistress, ex-showgirl Billie Dawn (Kimberly Gilbert) needs to be a little more presentable, so he hires a journalist, Paul Verrall (Cody Nickell), to tutor Billie, and the result is more than a little surprising to everyone! Spoiler alert: Billie outsmarts everyone in the end.
As Billie starts to read things that interest her—yes, READ!—she has an awaking from which there is no turning back. She’s not as dumb as Harry thought, and Garson Kanin’s story about personal transformation and the often seamy underbelly of politics makes for very interesting dialog for today’s audiences. As the insightful director, Aaron Posner, says, “Audiences will appreciate the shrewd and charming dialogue and, with no changes to the script, this 70 year-old play’s characters and themes will remind us all how the more things change in Washington, the more things stay the same!”
The casting for this show by Patrick Pearson is as smart as the dialog. Ed Gero, whom you may remember from years of headlining Ford’s Theatre’s “The Christmas Carol” or in Arena Stage’s and Off-Broadway’s “The Originalist,” is more mean and obtuse than you can imagine. He is surrounded by equally first-rate actors like the perky, smart and beautiful Kimberly Gilbert as Billie (she will almost make you forget Judy Holliday from the original Broadway cast as well as the 1950’s movie of “Born Yesterday”). Her characterization of Billie is simply brilliant!
Other notable cast members are tall, handsome, and sexy Cody Nickell as Paul Verrall and wily Evan Casey as Eddie Brock, Harry’s truly thuggish cousin in a fabulous pinstriped suit worthy of “Guys and Dolls”! Rounding out this marvelous cast are Eric Hissom as the mostly drunk, but still wise, Attorney Ed Devery, and Todd Schofield and Naomi Jacobson as upright and uptight (but still on-the-take) Senator and Mrs. Norval Hedges. They, as well as Jamie Smithson, play several hilarious and memorable roles. Naomi’s Helen the maid is hilarious!
And, now I must talk about the sumptuous set design. Oh, my! Daniel Lee Conway’s scenic design elegantly transforms the stage into the most gorgeous two-level Washington hotel suite you ever saw! We learn that the price of spending a night there is $235 and that the maid thinks that is simply outrageous for 1946. Well, in today’s dollars, that would be $3,184.25 (the math is worked out in the program) and it’s worth every penny! Trust me, see this show for the witty dialog and what you will learn about the period, but stay for the set! But wait, there’s more…the lighting by Nancy Schertler and the sound design and music by John Gromada are all integral to your complete enjoyment of the evening. (Yes, the music is perfect, and that’s all I will say. I don’t want to spoil the fun of you hearing it.) Additionally, the colorful and of-the-period costumes by Kelsey Hunt and hair and makeup by Anne Nesmith will brighten your evening as well. Some are a little racier than others. I’m just sayin’… I loved them all!
I just think it’s totally amazing that a play that was written 70+ years ago about its contemporary ideas and concerns could play so well and be so relevant to us today. You won’t believe it either, I’ll bet. My favorite line and take-away from this marvelous production is one that Paul Verrall (the tutor and journalist) says to Billie Dawn, who asks why she should spend the time and energy learning about ideas and reading books. He says: “I want everyone to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.” Boom. I rest my case.
Ticket and Performance Information: Running time for “Born Yesterday” is about 2.5 hours with one intermission. Tickets can be purchased at www.fords.org or by calling 202-347-4833. The show runs September 21 to October 21, 2018.