Born yesterday

'Born Yesterday' gets a contemporary spin today

"Born Yesterday" by Garson Kanin • Directed by Doug Hughes • Cort Theatre, NYC • Open-Ended Run

In 1946, when Garson Kanin's "Born Yesterday" went into rehearsal, Billie Dawn, the classic "dumb blonde," was played by the emotionally fragile stage and screen star, Jean Arthur.

Before previews began, Arthur had left the company, pleading "nervous exhaustion." The understudy, Judy Holliday, formerly an assistant switchboard operator for Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre, took on the role. Her work in "Born Yesterday" was the stuff of which Broadway legends are made, and played a large part in the play's astonishing run of 1,642 performances.

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Now the classic comedy is back in an intelligent Broadway production directed by Doug Hughes, one of the contemporary theater's trio of outstanding Irish-American directors, the others being Daniel Sullivan and Jack O'Brien.

The part of the former showgirl "owned" by ruthless junk dealer Harry Brock is played by a promising newcomer, 26-year-old Nina Arianda. She made a striking name for herself off-Broadway this past season in David Ives' two-character play, "Venus in Fur."

Director Hughes has found depths and subtleties in both Billie's character and in the play itself that do wonders to erase much of the damage the passage of 65 years has done to what is, at heart, a conventional romantic comedy.

For one thing, the star and her director make sure that Billie is, to some extent, redeemable, and has been waiting for the opportunity to break the chains that bind her.

Hughes has cast his production well, with Jim Belushi as Harry Brock, the unlettered scrap dealer, in postwar Washington, D.C. to buy himself a senator. Even factoring in Belushi's noisy bluster, this particular Harry emerges as a viable human being, sufficiently coarse but not impossibly villainous.

Hughes appears to have subjected Belushi's character to a fresh analysis similar to his approach to actress Arianda's Billie Dawn. Where Billie shows a modicum of inherent intelligence, Belushi's Harry is allowed to display a certain vulnerability, and it aids the character's impact enormously.

Robert Sean Leonard, in the underwritten role of Paul Verrall, the journalist Harry hires to "educate" Billie, and to make her socially less awkward, has the intelligence and the grace to make the part work. Leonard comes across as exactly what he is, a skilled actor who is comfortably on top of his role from start to finish, even if the effort shows a bit here and there.

When George Cukor filmed the play in 1950, William Holden played Paul Verrall, Broderick Crawford was Harry. Judy Holliday recreated her original triumphant stage role, and won an Academy Award for it.

Doug Hughes' production of "Born Yesterday," with hotel staffers, barbers, manicurists and bootblacks milling about John Lee Beatty's fussy hotel setting, is a reminder that the time is long gone when Broadway productions other than musicals could afford to hire a cast of 13 actors, some of them visible for only a relatively few moments of stage time.

The current staging of "Born Yesterday" marks the first major Broadway revival the play has been given since its historic original production. As such, it's extremely welcome.