Born Yesterday — Image via guthrietheater.org

Born Yesterday

Guthrie Theater
Directed by John Miller-Stephany

Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday is a classic bit of mid-20th Century American liberalism — critical of the present, optimistic about the future, and above all committed to the proposition that, with a little education and awareness, regular people can hold their governments accountable to the ideals of democracy. The play’s missionary zeal brings it energy, but its didactic speeches and broad caricatures create definite challenges, and the Guthrie Theater‘s current production, directed by John Miller-Stephany, meets these challenges with only partial success.

Born Yesterday — Image via guthrietheater.orgSet in the aftermath of World War II, Born Yesterday begins with the arrival of junk dealer turned war profiteer Harry Brock (Jeff Still) in Washington, D.C., accompanied by his former chorus girl mistress, Billie Dawn (Alexis Bronkovic); his lawyer, Ed Devery (Mark Benninghofen); and his lackey cousin, Eddie Brock (Zach Curtis). Harry wants Congress to clear a path for his efforts to harvest scrap metal from the battlefields of Europe, and he is prepared to spread around some bribes to make this happen. When Ed advises Harry that Billie will be a liability until she learns how to speak and behave in the company of the capital’s cultured elite, Harry hires reporter Paul Verrall (John Patrick Hayden) to give her some coaching. The remainder of the play is devoted to Billie’s gradual awakening to both the finer things in life and the nature of Harry’s activities, as well as the relationship that develops between her and Paul.

One of the highlights of the Guthrie’s production is Still’s portrayal of Harry. He is eminently believable as a tough guy from a lower-class background who has clawed his way to the top through ruthlessness and cunning. In the first act, his straight-talking manner is often disarmingly charming, and as the play progresses and it becomes obvious that he is incapable of valuing anything or any person in terms of anything other than dollar signs, one almost feels sorry for him. Benninghofen also does an excellent job as Ed, an intelligent, witty, and thoughtful man who drowns his self-hate in steadily increasing amounts of alcohol as events proceed.

Born Yesterday — Image via guthrietheater.orgBronkovic’s portrayal of Billie is more problematic, as she often seems straitjacketed by an effort to replicate the accent and mannerisms of Judy Holliday in the 1950 film version of the play. It would be interesting to see this role played in a more naturalistic fashion rather than as an ossified golden-age Hollywood version of a chorus girl. In any case, the rare moments when Bronkovic steps back from this persona to behave more like a real person are certainly among her best. As for Paul, Hayden plays him as a less earnest and more cynical character than one might expect. While the fact that nothing seems to faze him often makes for amusing interactions with Harry, this approach also detracts from Paul’s chemistry with Billie, already hampered by the production’s campy take on her character.

While the Guthrie’s take on Born Yesterday is certainly entertaining, it often seems like a missed opportunity. There is a difference between taking the play’s admittedly rudimentary politics seriously and idealizing them, yet it seems like, in an effort to avoid the latter, the Guthrie has avoided the former as well. The result is something that feels much more like a period piece than it needs to, given the very real contemporary relevance of its themes and the possibilities inherent in its characters.

Photos by T. Charles Erickson

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.