“Just because I’m blonde/
Don’t think I’m dumb/
Because this dumb blonde is nobody’s fool”
– Dolly Parton, “Dumb Blonde”, Hello, I’m Dolly (1968)
I’ll be honest with ya, folks: when I agreed to see this play last night I had no idea it would be the first State of the Union address by the Annoying Orange. Honestly, I didn’t. Had I known, I’d have avoided it anyway, but I don’t want you to think that I consciously went out of my way to see the revival of a seventy-one-and-a-half-year-old play just to avoid the vocal diarrhea spat from the lips of an elitist, racist, anti-Semitic White supremacist who lusts after his own daughter and seems hellbent on provoking a nuclear war.
That would just be silly.
Nevertheless, there I was in a just-shy-of-full house taking in a play that preaches everything opposed by that-guy-who-owes-his-presence-in-the-White-House-to-Russian-interference. The message of Garson Kanin’s play remains vital and a lot of the jokes are as side-splitting as when first they were spoken. Unfortunately, this production lacks the energy needed to breathe new life into an old text.
It’s never specified what Harry Brock does for a living, but the Italian suits and upstate accent are a good clue. The former slum kid has made so much money and bought so many items that he figures the next logical step is to buy a politician. Hence his arrival in our nation’s capital. With girlfriend Billie in tow, Brock decides to make his move on an all-too-eager senator.
But appearances are everything, and Brock can’t pass as legit with a ditzy former chorus girl on his arm. With that in mind, he insists that Billie be tutored in etiquette by Paul Verrall, a reporter for The New Republic sent to do a profile on Brock.
To everyone’s surprise, Billie takes to the lessons rather well. But to Brock’s dismay, he finds that the last thing he wants is a woman who thinks for herself.
I’m not the first to say this, nor will I be the last: comedy lives and dies by timing. It should almost never be slow, unless the slowness is the joke (see the sloth scene from Zootopia). If there’s one thing certain (not all) cast members of this show should have gotten at the start of rehearsal, it’s schooling in the appropriate way to deliver this kind of dialogue. This play (and the film that later adapted it) come from a pre-Method Acting style of American theatre that required actors to begin their lines immediately after the last actor spoke theirs. There’s some wiggle room with dramas, but none for comedy. As such, even when Kanin’s lines remain funny, they frequently fall to limp delivery.
This is most noticeable when watching the play’s two male leads. Jason Kapoor at least gets the vocal rhythm of Paul Verrall’s dialogue, but each line is delivered in a lifeless monotone that’s often hard to hear. Fairing no better is Michael Torres as Harry Brock. Not only does he struggle with the dialogue – noticeably flubbing lines often – but he never projects the intended menace necessary to make one shiver in Brock’s presence. Torres often sounds as if he’d just read the script for the first time before he walked on stage.
And then there’s the fact that Torres-as-Brock is the instigator of all the physical violence seen on stage. I’ve gone through both the program and the SF Playhouse website multiple times now, but there is no credited choreographer for the fights… and it shows. There’s no skill, weight, or sense of impact behind any of the moves. I hope this doesn’t mean the production was irresponsible enough not to choreograph the scenes. In any case, it’s an eye sore to watch.
On the plus side, a few great actors and some amazing production values keep the show from being a complete loss. The last time I saw Millie Brooks and Anthony Fusco (the latter of whom I’ve worked with before) was in last year’s SF Playhouse production of The Christians. Here, they make the most out of each and every moment they have on stage. Brooks – a gifted comedian who serves as executive director of Killing My Lobster – is just as adept at finding Billie’s heart as she is at using her Betty Boop voice to chastise Brock for not knowing who Tom Paine is. Similarly, Fusco keeps drunken lawyer Ed Devery sympathetic, rather than allowing him to fall into slovenly cliché.
Jacquelyn Scott’s intricately detailed hotel set is a wonder to behold, with its columns, grand, staircase, and room-length window looking out over the National Mall. Said view is the result of Theodore Hulsker’s projections, which change over the course of the play. Though the buildings in the distance never move, the skyline goes from dawn to noon to star-and-moonlit night sky. Catching a peak out of the corner of your right eye makes for one of the plays highlights. Throw in Michael Oesch’s lights, Jacquelyn Scott’s props, and Abra Berman’s drool-inducing costumes and you’ve a production that is a top-notch technical feat.
It would be foolish to think that contemporary audiences will have the same reaction as those who first experienced a classic work. Nevertheless, the right level of skill can find the power in even the oldest works. Born Yesterday is a play for which the relevance has only increased – especially when one considers the rise of the #MeToo movement. Unfortunately, this revival by SF Playhouse is more satisfied with going through the motions than drawing contemporary parallels.
Too bad. They’ve got such great material to work with.
Born Yesterday is scheduled to run until the 10th of March at the San Francisco Playhouse.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.