When and by what reasoning the UA theatre department chose Garson Kanin's vintage Born Yesterday for the Arizona Repertory Company to present as part of their 80th season, we don't know. But the inclusion demonstrates an uncanny prescience of how disturbing the recent election and its run-up would be.
It's a story of money and politics.
Sitting in the opening night's audience a day after the presidential election was just a bit eerie. Unfolding before us was the story of a successful businessman's connivance to enhance his success by not only manipulating rules and laws and his girlfriend, but using his influence—read, money—to try to cozy up to a senator willing to be cozied up to. There really is, as they say, nothing new under the sun.
Kanin's play was produced right after World War II, when there were plenty of changes happening on just about every front. The war had ushered in a new perspective on governance, not only on the home front, but in the world at large. The atomic bomb changed everything, and there was a need for industrial materials not only to re-build an America that had sacrificed attention at home to meet needs abroad, but to create a country that could build an impenetrable defense. That created an entrepreneurial opportunity for one positioned to capitalize.
Kanin's Harry Brock (Carlos Lee Hall) is one of those poised to do just that. He is a rough around the edges Jersey boy, his own bootstrap puller, who had observed at a very early age that hard work paid off and that cheating while you worked hard paid off even more. He has built a fortune and is ambitious to add to it by any means possible. He has an entourage, the most vital members of which are his nephew, an alcoholic crony who is a former Attorney General of the U.S., and so was positioned to negotiate favors, and his wife, Billie Dawn (Marissa Munter), who is pretty much what you'd expect from that name. She's very blond and speaks with a high-pitched voice, and, unsurprisingly, Harry had plucked her from the chorus of Anything Goes. Both arm and eye candy, she's treated badly by Harry, who, when really afraid of losing her, confesses that he does love her. But compared to the company Harry is now about to keep, she's not an acceptably polished companion. Harry sees an opportunity to send her to a finishing school of sorts when a young reporter comes to interview him, and Harry thrusts Billie Dawn into his tutelage.
Unfortunately for Harry, the reporter is a left-wing sympathizer who believes that having a good education is the best answer to folks like Harry and governmental lack of scruples. He's a smart man, is more than a bit smitten by Billie Dawn and gently encourages her to read and think for herself and to have a look at the world in a new way. Turns out that she's an excellent student, and as she begins to actually see the way things are evolving, she no longer wants to put up with Harry's worldview and, more particularly, his abuse.
Watch out when a woman—even a blond floozy—learns to read. (Let us remember this as we think about the next four years and consider how we fund education.)
Director Hank Stratton has plucked some ripe talent from the large orchard available in the theater program to bring Kanin's fable to delightful life. This is serious stuff playfully delivered, and the generally capable cast does a great job.
Hall as Brock is pretty spot-on. He's a bit pudgy—which would never work for a woman with ambition—but that seems OK here if you wear nice suits and have a knockout girlfriend. He's crass and ambitious above all else, but he's pretty soft when it comes to Billie Dawn. He's also obviously not too bright when it comes to choosing tutors for Billie. The young man he chooses is tall and cute and well-spoken, and a member of the press, for chrissake.
The supporting cast is fine enough. Matthew Osvog, as reporter and Billie Dawn tutor, underplays his attraction, and that makes it funnier when he does get caught gazing at Billie's lusciousness. Alex Gossard's Eddie brings a rambunctious energy to his job as a go-fer. Kasey Caruso, the ex-AG, is a critical character and could stand to be fleshed out more, but youth and life experience needed to give that character more depth is understandably not fully available to the young actor.
Munter's Billie Jean is a marvel. The actress glances with a knowing eye at the stereotype of a showgirl, and as we are getting to know her, she finds numerous clever comic moments that show that her Billie is more than just a pretty face. Even before we see her fervor and enthusiasm for tackling the enormous world of knowledge, we know she's no dummy.
The production is fine in just about every way, including a most magnificent set design by Amy Sue Hazel, costumes by Julio C Hernandez, lighting by Tori Mays and sound by Amber Rudnick.
The cast is a team and they pull together for director Stratton, and we believe he gets what he wants from all departments. It's a very smooth and entertaining production of a very timely piece.
Now, if the curtain could come down as easily on what's being played out in the real world as it does on ART's show, we'd have a couple of hits on our hands.