That's what I call a rebirth. A new face has breathed fresh life into "Born Yesterday" at the Cort Theatre.
Not that Garson Kanin's 1946 comedy was even a little tired. It is as deliciously witty and pungent as when it was born.
But it takes a special actress in the key role of Billie Dawn — the dumb blond who outsmarts her junk-dealer tycoon boyfriend — to make the play more than funny and to make you fall in love.
With the knockout newcomer Nina Arianda center stage, be prepared to fall hard, fast and completely. If you missed her last year as a dominatrix downtown in "Venus in Fur," you probably don't know her work.
But you shouldn't miss her thrilling Broadway debut in the plum part made famous on stage and film in Oscar-winning fashion by Judy Holliday.
Arianda brings her own unique style and expressive charm, along with Swiss-clock timing, as the ex-chorus girl who's long on legs and seemingly short on brains. Speaking with a crass squawk, the actress makes even the word "what" a laugh line.
She has so many wonderful wordless moments: pouring a drink, playing gin, smoking a cigarette, racking her brain for her given name. If I ever want to smile, I'll just recall her trying to outrun the hem of her flowing peignoir. Sheer fizzy perfection.
Film and TV veteran Jim Belushi brings just the right mix of menace and uncouth stupidity as Harry Brock, Billie's thuggish, sometimes violent, lover. Mr. Brock comes to Washington to buy off politicians to add to his millions and decides Billie needs to be educated to impress D.C. denizens.
Robert Sean Leonard plays Paul Verrall, the liberal writer Harry hires to be her tutor. A Tony winner for "The Invention of Love," Leonard has been seen lately on TV's "House," but he is so at home on stage. His seductive nonchalance works like a charm. He and Arianda have a crackly chemistry.
Director Doug Hughes' swell-dressed and richly appointed production evokes the best that money can buy, circa 1946. Save for Frank Wood's high-speed slurry performance as Harry's shady lawyer, Hughes' show is beautifully balanced and always captivating.
As Billie wises up about the world and herself, Kanin's timeless comedy reminds us that a little bit of knowledge can be a life-changing thing.
Same goes for the right role, as shown by Arianda, Broadway's new Queen of Comedy.
It takes a lot of smarts to act dumb -- and make it funny without condescending to the character or the material.
Playing the tricky role of Billie Dawn in the new Broadway revival of "Born Yesterday," Nina Arianda emerges as a technically dazzling comedienne. She lands all her quips, with inspired touches of physical humor for good measure. But her uncommon warmth and charm also make Billie touchingly vibrant. It's a downright tour de force.
Garson Kanin's 1946 hit starts off as an extended blond joke. The platinum-coiffed Billie -- a part immortalized by Judy Holliday onstage and in the 1950 movie -- is a former chorus girl whose broad New Jersey accent underlines her naivete.
Billie is kept in mink by Harry Brock (Jim Belushi), a crass, self-made millionaire. He loves her, but also confirms his dominance by belittling her constantly. "Goddamn dumb broad," he grumbles. "You dumb little pot."
Visiting Washington to bribe -- er, lobby -- politicians, Harry figures Billie needs someone "to smarten 'er up a little" so she won't embarrass him in society.
His first big mistake is to hire as her tutor an idealistic journalist, Paul Verrall (Robert Sean Leonard), who believes that "a world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in."
Harry's second big mistake is not realizing that his initial diagnosis was completely wrong: Billie isn't stupid, but uneducated. After hitting the books and brushing up on the Founding Fathers' ideals -- the comedy doubles as a civics lesson, à la Frank Capra -- she gains the confidence to make a stand against her corrupt boyfriend and his shady deals.
Director Doug Hughes keeps the action moving somewhat fleetly, even if John Lee Beatty's overstuffed hotel-room set is as feathery as a wedding cake made of plaster. Frank Wood is just fine as Harry's lawyer, eaten up by his compromises, but Leonard portrays Paul's earnestness with deadpan stiffness. You don't buy his love for Billie; on a recent night, he even blew one of the show's best lines, which needed sensuality and comic timing to work.
Arianda, last seen in "Venus in Fur," may have less stage experience, but she brilliantly tracks Billie's evolution from vulnerable bimbo to assured woman made downright giddy by learning.
If this sounds like self-help, fear not: Kanin was too acerbic for that hogwash, and Arianda girds Billie's sweetness with sly resolution. She also has a surprisingly good foil in Belushi, who doesn't soft-pedal Harry's brutal bullying while suggesting it's prompted by insecurity.
Watching these two lock horns is so pleasurable, you want to see them again as soon as the curtain comes down.
A piercing squawk ricochets around the theater, followed by bright peals of girlish giggling. In counterpoint comes a rumbling bellow at a volume requiring no help from the electronic listening devices that are almost as ubiquitous as cellphones in Broadway theaters.
But even the babel of fierce combat between the American theater’s definitive dumb blonde, Billie Dawn (Nina Arianda), and her abusive lover Harry Brock (Jim Belushi), cannot obscure the occasional sound of creaking at the Cort Theater, where a solid but inessential revival of Garson Kanin’s comedy “Born Yesterday” opened on Sunday night.
The celluloid shadow of the wondrous Judy Holliday, who played Billie in the original 1946 Broadway production and the movie directed by George Cukor, inevitably looms large over any revival of “Born Yesterday.” (Madeline Kahn starred in the only previous Broadway revival, in 1989.) To her immense credit Ms. Arianda, who made a spectacular Off Broadway debut last season as the actress-seductress in David Ives’s “Venus in Fur,” colors this cartoon role with her own set of Crayolas.
With her luscious pout and sweep of peroxide curls Ms. Arianda banishes Holliday’s pop-eyed, chirpy naïveté to evoke the surly molls of 1930s gangster flicks. Her Billie Dawn, streetwise and complacent in her illiteracy, is like a cross between Jean Harlow at her tough-blondest and the pop singer Cyndi Lauper, with her Queens-bred rasp.
Chafing at her bondage to the junk tycoon Harry, who has come to Washington to throw his considerable financial weight around, Ms. Arianda’s leggy Billie prowls their plush hotel suite like an unruly feline, as likely to scratch as to purr. Although she acts the docile girlfriend when Harry is putting on a show for the senator in his pocket (Terry Beaver) and his patronizing wife (Patricia Hodges), Billie gives as good as she gets when she and Harry are alone together.
Ms. Arianda’s nasal squawk — think of the sound you hear if you squeeze a rubber duck — lends a bright comic pop to Billie’s stream of dim-witticisms. (“She’s pretty stupid too,” she says of a Washington wife, “only in a refined way.”) Too uncouth for Harry in his new guise as a Washington bigwig, Billie undergoes an education in the basics of American civics under the tutelage of the reporter Paul Verrall, played with wonderful gallantry and delicacy by Robert Sean Leonard, whom Harry hires to shellac some class onto Billie’s curves.
Ms. Arianda’s resourceful performance, under the direction of Doug Hughes, benefits from all sorts of inventive and felicitous comic business. As Billie searches her newly stuffed memory bank for a recent addition to her vocabulary, you can almost see her picking out words and tossing them aside, like cards in a gin rummy hand, before settling on the right one (“cartel”) with a sigh of satisfaction. As she settles down to blithely vanquish Harry at the card table itself, Billie trains her fierce focus on her toes, visible through her high-heeled mules, to tally up her score when she runs out of fingers. (The plush costumes by Catherine Zuber are matched by an even plusher set by John Lee Beatty.)
But even as embodied with invigorating spunk by Ms. Arianda, Billie is essentially a classy variation on a dusty stereotype. Most of the evening’s humor derives from her daffy ignorance, even after Billie has acquired a grounding in democratic values and the moral compass that comes with them. In the play’s climactic moments, when our sympathies have been aroused by Billie’s awakening conscience, Kanin cannot resist making her the butt of a malapropism when she ringingly quotes Abraham Lincoln to Harry: “This country with its institutions belongs to the people who inhibit it!”
Holliday’s warmth and vulnerability helped amplify the character’s humanity in the movie, but Ms. Arianda doesn’t manage to project these qualities in sufficient doses to disguise the slight condescension that hovers over Kanin’s sympathetic but sentimental portrait of a dim bulb who suddenly glows bright when a helpful guy turns on the light switch. This lack of transfiguring vulnerability also makes the romance between Billie and Paul seem a synthetic plot device.
Still, what a pleasure to have Mr. Leonard back onstage in New York. (He’s recently been out in Hollywood filming the popular Fox series “House.”) He brings a touching, exhausted wistfulness to his performance as Paul, whose malice-free contempt for Harry is amiably mixed with a conviction that nary a soul in Washington resides on a much higher moral plane. As Harry’s legal fixer, commissioned to grease the Washington wheels but mostly just lubricating himself with whiskey, Frank Wood exudes a clammy self-disgust in the play’s major supporting role.
If the play’s sexual politics still carry a whiff of the postwar years, when it was assumed that even this empowered woman could find fulfillment only by transferring her allegiance from a brutish man to a sympathetic one, its purely political resonance today is scarcely more potent.
When “Born Yesterday” opened in 1946, its casually cynical take on American politics probably gave off the aroma of warm newsprint. The play’s depiction of the mercenary foundations of Washington deal making (and bill making) presumably felt provocative in the complacent days when ticker tape from parades celebrating America’s triumph in World War II still stuck to shoes.
More than a half-century of Washington scandals later, Americans absorb disillusion with every morning sip of Starbucks coffee. Current polls suggest that politicians of both parties — and politics itself as it is practiced in Washington — are about as popular as crabgrass. Now the idea that two spunky small fry could successfully fight against the influence of money in politics feels decidedly quaint.
Harry Brock, on the other hand, with his proud vulgarianism and insistence on his fundamental right to bend the law to his monetary will, feels unpleasantly timeless. His brutishness and unbowed egoism are conveyed with ferocious humor by Mr. Belushi, who can pivot from amusingly doltish to truly menacing without so much as shifting the cigar clamped between his teeth.
“I don’t see what I’m doin’ so wrong,” Harry grouses when his methods are questioned. “This is America ain’t it? Where’s all this free enterprise they’re always talkin’ about?”
Add a few g’s here and there — or maybe don’t? — and that could be the windup to a speech given by any number of C.E.O.’s turned politicians, aimed at finding common ground with the common man. Today Harry wouldn’t be spending his millions to buy himself a senator. He’d be spending them on his own campaign to become one. And I wouldn’t bet against him.