'Born Yesterday' at SF Playhouse Reminds Us That Washington Has Always Been Kind of Corrupt
by Jay Barmann
As a counterpoint in the Bay Area theater season to recent revivals of darker prewar plays at Berkeley Rep (It Can't Happen Here, Watch on the Rhine) that warned of the rise of fascism and presaged America's entrance into World War II, SF Playhouse presents Garson Kanin's charming and light-hearted postwar comedy Born Yesterday, which hit Broadway in 1946. It's a play that still works remarkably well for a modern audience despite being 72 years old for the simple reason that Washington D.C. is as corrupt as it ever was, and the central plot of a strong female protagonist getting wise and outwitting the greedy blowhard who's been keeping her as a plaything remains a winning formula.
Millie Brooks does some sly and uproarious comedic work as Billie Dawn, the uneducated showgirl brought to town to keep millionaire boyfriend Harry Brock (Michael Torres) company, as he and his fatigued associate Ed (played by local stage vet Anthony Fusco) arrive to bribe and lobby whomever they can in Congress to advance Harry's junk trading business. A predictable story unfolds as we learn Billie is the primary signatory on most of Harry's businesses, for purposes of legal shelter, and simultaneously Harry and Ed decide that Billie needs to get an education if she's ever going to serve as a proper companion in the D.C. social scene.
Enter Paul (played very straight by Jason Kapoor to level off the earnestness written into many of his character's lines), an upright D.C. journalist who happens to live in the same hotel where Harry and Billie are staying, whom Harry employs to teach his kept gal a few things -- like manners, and how to read a newspaper.
You can see where this all is going, and Kanin's witty script wastes no time putting Billie into the arms of Paul -- the romance being key to the Oscar-winning 1950 George Cukor movie starring Judy Holliday as Billie and William Holden as Paul. Soon she's able to avoid double negatives and start asking questions about the documents she's always being told to sign without reading them.
Some brisk direction by SF Playhouse cofounder Susi Damilano still takes its time with several moments in the play that were written in more patient times -- Act One, for instance, closes with Billie and Harry playing several rounds of Gin Rummy, mostly in silence, as we watch her trounce him repeatedly, foreshadowing the fact that Billie takes quickly to any lessons she's given.
The supporting players all do top-notch comedic work, and while Torres stumbles on some lines, he's entirely believable as a Jersey businessman who never turned down an easy swindle.
If there's anything outrageously anachronistic in Born Yesterday it's a line that Ed delivers in Act Three about how not all Senators can be bought and "There are too many honest men in this town." Apart from that, much of what Kanin wrote -- about a crass junk mogul looking for any and all ways to make a few more million dollars off a war he clearly profited mightily from and the Senator being paid off to do his bidding -- has plenty of obvious echoes in modern politics and more recent wars.
The character of Billie gets a proto-feminist happy ending, and even if this isn't a play that arrives at any deep thoughts on morality or integrity, it lands in a satisfyingly hopeful place about the importance of speaking truth to power and holding the corrupt accountable. It is, above all, a smart and funny diversion that reminds us that good guys sometimes win, even in Washington, and maybe they will again.
'Born Yesterday' plays through March 10 at SF Playhouse. Find tickets here.