Thursday, February 1, 2018

"Born Yesterday"

Born Yesterday
Garson Kanin

The Cast of Born Yesterday
Laughs galore abound inside San Francisco Playhouse these days; and the majority of them are due to one of the oldest, now most politically incorrect of stereotypes: the ditsy, dumb blonde.  But somehow under the tongue-in-cheek yet sophisticated direction of Susi Damilano, there is not a moment’s hesitation to howl away in loud waves of laughter as Millie Brooks reigns supreme as the golden-haired and wide-eyed Billie Dawn -- supported by a splendid cast of wonderfully constructed stock characters of the 1940s.  The vehicle for all this frivolous fun is Garson Kanin’s 1946 Broadway hit, Born Yesterday, the precursor to the 1948 film, with both starring the incomparable Judy Holiday as Billie.  Clearly Ms. Brooks is the incarnation of Judy in her zany, immediately likeable, and ultimately wiser-than-most depiction of Billie Down.  The result is a winning, nothing-serious-about-it outing at San Francisco Playhouse.

To post-war Washington, D.C. comes a filthy rich, blusterous, uncouth, and corrupt junkyard dealer from Jersey named Harry Brock.  Checking into one of the finest hotels with a penthouse view of the Capitol, he brings with him his equally corrupt lawyer Ed Devery, his cousin and side-kick Eddie, and his girl (but definitely not wife), Billie (she being a former chorus girl from shows like Anything Goes).  Harry is there to ensure that his lucrative donations to Senator Norval Hedges pave a clear way through new, expedited laws for Harry to import the tons of scrap iron now littering bombed-out Europe (meaning no import taxes, no burdensome regulations, no questions asked ... Sound currently familiar?).

As Harry tries to liquor-up and solidify his deal with the Senator, Harry becomes concerned that Billie is making a bad impression by her lack of smarts.  (“The Supreme Court ... What is it?”, she asks with the blankest of looks.)  Harry decides to employ for a whopping $200 a week a sharp, good-looking (very) reporter he just met to educate Billie.  The debonair Paul Verrall (who just happens to live down the hall in the same hotel) jumps at the chance to help this fascinating and not-at-all dumb (to him) girl.  The tutor-teacher relationship they establish with all the subsequent exposure Billie gets to books, newspapers, and the proper ways of talking opens up a Pandora’s Box of many hilarious, bold, and life-altering changes for Billie, Paul, and Harry alike.  And we get to watch, laughing along the way and cheering ever more loudly for the transformation of Billie from supposed dumbbell to savvy woman on a mission.

Millie Brooks
That Millie Brooks is the big news of this production is clear from the moment she initially parades down the stairs looking like one of Ziegfeld’s girls, descending in her own world of self-absorbed beauty.  Her Billie is at first as empty headed and unpredictable as she can be, liable to scream at any moment in her cartoon-like, high-octave voice from somewhere unseen in her room upstairs.  But as she begins to explore the world of books from Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason to Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield to Websters’ Dictionary, the metamorphosis that Millie Brooks brings about in her Billie is fun and funny as well as inspiring and uplifting. 

Millie Brooks & Jason Kapoor
Billie’s discovery of the brains she always had is due to the belief in her inherent intelligence by the reporter-turned-teacher, Paul.  Jason Kapoor is as cool as a cucumber in the midst of Eddie Brock’s bully, bombastic outbursts; but he is gooey-eyed through his round specs whenever he is around Billie.  His smooth flow of words spoken with quiet confidence nearing cockiness is in great contrast to the verbal explosions otherwise regularly occurring all around him.

Jason Kapoor & Michael Torres
Those bombs are mostly due to Harry’s mouth that is almost as large and over-bearing as the tall and broad-shouldered Michael Torres is in his bright blue suit.  Mr. Torres shouts so much during the evening that his voice often sounds like it might be on its last, blasting hurrah.  He is the epitome of a small-fry crook who does not understand why entire world should not either bow down immediately to his money or fear his rough neck threats of reprisal.  The constant blasts of hot air do tend to get a little old as the evening progresses, and Mr. Torres in his spoutings does have a tendency to stumble on some of his line lines; but overall, his portrayal is a delightful caricature.

Louis Parnell, Michael Torres & Terry Bamberger
These three principals are supported in comic, stock fashion by the likes of Anthony Fusco as the whiskey-swilling, ethics-empty lawyer, Ed Devery – whose eyes roll drunkenly in disbelief at some of the shenanigans he must witness while he also does all he can to tread a legal path to hide the corruption of his well-paying client.  Equally corrupt in his own way with his big, toothy smiles and outstretched hands ready to shake on any deal that could mean more dough into his political pot, Senator Hedges is played in slimy fun by Louis Parnell.  Terry Bamberger is his aristocratic wife, Mrs. Hedges, wearing a hat as big as her own, evident sense of social importance and superiority. 

Jacqueline Scott has created a two-level set that exudes a high-priced hotel suite one might find in D.C. in 1946 (this one evidently coming at the shocking $235 per day), and she has added dozens of touches in properties that define the elegance as well as the humor.  The multiple, shaded light fixtures on the plush-papered walls are realistically lit with the touch of a switch as part of Michael Oesch’s lighting design while doorbells and phones ring as a console phonograph plays music of the era, all expertly delivered by Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s sound design.  But the biggest kudos must go to Abra Berman whose costumes bring to the hilarious characters before us the mid-1940s wardrobe of the Washington elite and their servants as well as the New Jersey slickness and silliness of the D.C. visitors.

It would be a mistake to go to Born Yesterday looking for serious, underlying messages.  However, the satirical look at Washington politics still is all-too current, and the emerging of a strong-willed woman ready to stand up in her own way to the corruption around her (as well as take full control of her own life in the way she wants to live it) is still a story worth telling seventy years later – especially when it can be told with such hilarity does as the cast of San Francisco Playhouse’s current Born Yesterday.

Rating: 4 E

Born Yesterday continues through March 10, 2018 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli.

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