Thursday, April 28, 2011

Purring Along

Nina Arianda in Born Yesterday (photo by Carol Rosegg)
Born Yesterday
Written by Garson Kanin
Starring Nina Arianda, Jim Belushi, Robert Sean Leonard
Directed by Doug Hughes

Previews began March 31, 2011
Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street

In a role associated with Judy Holliday (who starred in the original 1946 Broadway production and the 1950 movie) and Madeline Kahn (who starred in the 1989 Broadway revival), 26-year-old Nina Arianda gives the quintessential dumb blonde Billie Dawn a thoroughly modern makeover in Doug Hughes’ glossy take on Garson Kanin’s enjoyable comedy, Born Yesterday.

Arianda’s Billie, while still dumbly lovable, is also much more tigerish than Holliday or Khan, who both accentuated Billie’s feminine side. This Billie stalks the stage aggressively, pouring herself massive amounts of liquor in the Washington hotel room of Harry Brock, the New Jersey junk dealer turned millionaire who has come to the nation’s capital with girlfriend Billie and lawyer Ed Devery in tow to pressure U.S. Senator Hedges to pass a law that will further line Brock’s pockets.

Brock, himself no intellectual, tells Ed that Billie should be educated so she doesn’t embarrass him while they schmooze with Washington politicians and their socialite wives. So he hires liberal journalist Paul Verrall, who arrives for a brief interview, to give Billie an education that, eventually, goes wrong for Brock in many ways. She’s been transformed: no longer his yes-man and front for his many shady deals, Billie instead questions his ethics and, most important of all, falls for Paul, the opposite of any man she’s ever met.

Kanin’s play was probably chosen for this revival not only because it’s an ideal vehicle for the up-and-coming Arianda, who wowed audiences and critics last season in David Ives’ Venus in Fur, but also because its screeds against how big business and our lawmakers are cozy together still resonate in 2011. Equally creaky and sturdy with some solid laughs, Born Yesterday has minimal character development but still gives a trio of good performers the chance to bite into their juicy roles.

Jim Belushi’s Brock is all gruff and bluster, which suits this straightforward comic actor just fine. He too stalks the stage, which may be director Hughes’ way of linking Brock and Billie, and if Belushi sometimes trips over his lines while he bellows, he’s professional enough to make it seem part of Brock’s bullying.

A bespectacled Robert Sean Leonard plays Paul with admirable understatement. Even if restraint is part of Paul’s character, daring to play him so low-key against the scenery chewing going on around him and still registering strongly and charmingly is a testament to this resourceful actor. In a decent supporting cast, Frank Wood stands out as Brock’s right-hand man Ed, giving a nicely acidic color to the play’s memorable final line.

As Billie, Arianda shows consummate skill and confidence in her Broadway debut, with pinpoint comic timing and immensely creative facial play that registers stirrings inside Billie that go well beyond the script. Even her strange choice of voice, as if a Brooklyn-born Betty Boop was being continuously strangled, works precisely because she shapes it as part of the character, not barking it out as a simple stunt.

However, as in Venus in Fur, Arianda works too hard for effect and becomes at times overbearing. She does prove in the quieter moments between Billie and Paul that she can be as good a dramatic actress as she is a comedic one. Now if she just let up on the gas a little while driving her breakout vehicle, then Born Yesterday would glide along even more sleekly.

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