"Born Yesterday," Milwaukee Repertory Theater
Last Sunday, we went to "The Rep" for their production of Garson Kanin's play, "Born Yesterday." This was rather a nostalgia trip for me, since I had played the part of "heavy" Harry Brock in community theatre twenty-five years ago, and not seen the play since. Georgie had never seen it before, so it was new to her other than my occasional reminiscences.
I knew the play was going to be timely, but I had forgotten HOW timely it would be. The story is set in 1946, in Washington D.C. Brock (Steve Pickering) has fought his way, largely by foul means, to a fortune in the scrap metal industry, and has come to Washington to oversee completion of legislation that will clear the way to allowing him to corner the market on cleaning up Europe's battlefields and cities. Through his crooked lobbyist/lawyer Ed Devery (Tony DeBruno), he has bribed a Senator (Jim Baker) and is prepared to spread more money around to get what he wants. Brock's plans come a cropper when he decides that his mistress, Billie Dawn (Deborah Staples), needs polish to be seen in Washington society, and he hires liberal journalist Paul Verrall (John Phillips) to give it to her. Brock, in his own fierce ignorance, does not realize that the benefits of a liberal education will open Billie's eyes to the harm his corruption does.
As Brock stamps and rants at Senator Hedges, one can't help thinking about our own recent bribery and corruption scandals, with industry lobbyists brazenly dictating legislation to the lawmakers who ought to be regulating them, and feel that if anything we've regressed from 1946.
The Milwaukee Rep put on a very nicley mounted production, with the set of Brock's hotel suite furnished in authentic 40's modern style. The play was acted for broad humor, with Harry, Billie, and Eddie Brock, Harry's slavish go-fer cousin, done with broad "Joisy" accents. This pointed up the distinction between Brock's retinue and the world-weary Washington sophisticates, Devery, Hedges, and Verrall, but tended to make the those characters somewhat cartoonish by contrast. Staples is more commedienne than 'glamour puss'(although she looks smashing in her period couture) which means that we never really see vulnerability at certain critical points; combined with the clownish gloss put on Brock's character, there is no sense of threat at the dramatic crisis.
(When I played this show, I recall we did it fairly straight, letting the comedy come from words and situations. I played Brock more as a dangerous gang boss than as a mere thug, and when when he was cruel or threatening, we tried to make the threat genuine, which makes Billie's revolt against him more heroic.)
That said, the Rep's cast had exquisite timing and delivery, and worked in bits of comic business that I can honestly and without jealousy say I wish I had thought of. The gin rummy game between Harry and Billie was masterfully done and very funny, even if you don't know anything about gin rummy, and even funnier if you do. Billie and Verrall debate the rights of man and clean government with enough intellectual passion, and Brock asserts his brutish "rights" to run roughshod over anyone not tough enough to stand up to him with a nicely hateful smugness. I must say that I enjoyed this presentation as much as any live theatre I have seen this year. I highly recommend it. The play runs nightly, plus Saturday and Sunday matinees, through December 31.