Opening its season, Pittsburgh Public Theater offers a sometimes engaging period piece which should please the public, Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday. It’s from 1946 and is no doubt best remembered for one of is characters, Billie Dawn, a seemingly empty-headed, full-bodied young woman whose transformation becomes the source of comedy and some degree of depth.
You need to wait until the second act to appreciate the best in the play. The first act essentially sets up the premise revealing fairly simple people who don’t provide many laughs. Visiting performer Melissa Miller stands out making Billie wonderfully charming and always convincing amid a cast playing everything with sincerity and believability. Public Theater Artistic Director Ted Pappas keeps it all colorful with a lively pace.
You won’t find the comedy as wacky as George S. Kaufman’s nor the serious moments close to Arthur Miller’s. Think of Born Yesterday fundamentally as an entertainment which, in the most intelligent parts of the second act, says well a few worthwhile things including some about politics, which don’t seem to have changed that much.
Uncouth, corrupt, rich junk dealer, Harry Brock comes to Washington D.C, to try to buy his way out of laws impeding his business, including trying to corner the market on war-destroyed ordnance overseas. He’s been paying off Senator Norval Hodges. Also in Brock’s bulging pocket is slick lawyer Ed Devery. Brock has brought showgirl mistress Billie Dawn with him. Since Billie’s ignorance looks as if that might cheapen Brock's image, he hires journalist Paul Verrall to educate her. Paul believes in the best aspects of democracy which he sometimes finds scrapped by people like Brock. Over the course of two months Paul not only influences Billie to read thought-provoking books but also to think for herself and to newly consider Brock’s personality and behavior.
Paul is played by Pittsburgh’s Daniel Krell, giving the role warm, sell-assured integrity. Visiting actor Ted Kōch portrays Brock with equal adeptness while Larry John Meyers looks and sounds entirely right as the Senator. They give the characters as much definition as possible given their limited development in Kanin’s script. Other local actors in the cast include John Shepard, Ken Bolden and James Fitzgerald.
James Noone’s set looks magnificent and director Pappas has added decorative physical touches of his own. Communications Manager Margie Romero has contributed enlightening information about the period and popular culture of the day. Among other things, she points out that Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun was running on Broadway at the time. Sound designer Zach Moore cleverly supplements that with a song from that show to set the stage, also giving nostalgia buffs samples of other pop songs of the mid-40s. Moreover Billie, whose career includes appearing in Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, sings a few bars from the score. Since those lyrics could double as Brock’s theme song, Kanin or Pappas make good points with that.
This good-looking, polished version of the 65 year old show offers a friendly couple of hours with a few things worth considering, especially given that the serious matters of a presidential election which waits just around the corner.
Born Yesterday continues through October 28th at Pittsburgh Public Theater’s O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, downtown. 412/ 316 1600 www.ppt.org