Election season brings us a timely and entertaining reminder of the way “plus ça change, plus ç’est la même chose” in Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday (at the Pittsburgh Public Theater). The play, originally written 1946, is primarily a Pygmalion story, tracing the transformation of Billie Dawn — a sweet bit of arm candy to a wealthy nouveau riche businessman — from stupid floozy to smart, self-possessed, empowered, and independent woman. But along the way it also rings some familiar bells on the topics of class conflict, political double standards, and, most particularly, the role of money in politics.
The action takes place in an extraordinarily upscale hotel suite in Washington D.C., where Harry Brock (Ted Koch), an uncouth rags-to-unimaginable-riches one-percenter, is trying to buy the services of US Senator Norval Hedges (Larry John Meyers) to help push through legislation favorable to his business interests (he’s made his fortune in junk (but of course!)). Concerned about his image, Brock hires a journalist, Paul Verrall (Daniel Krell), to tutor his vacuous and socially awkward ex-chorus-girl mistress Billie Dawn (Melissa Miller) in hopes of transforming her from an embarrassing liability to a sophisticated asset. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by letting you know that his plan misfires: under Verrall’s tutelage the shutters fall from Billie Dawn’s eyes in all sorts of predictable ways, and her transformation brings Brock the social position he deserves.
There aren’t a lot of surprises in the plot, but as I hinted at the beginning of this post, it is rather sobering to realize how little is new under the socio-political sun. Brock’s crowing about protecting the “free enterprise system” just moments before he bullies a senator into introducing favorable trade legislation is an all too familiar hypocrisy, reminding us of both the vast amount of corporate welfare in our system and the bad faith kerfuffle over President Obama’s “government helped you build that business” statement. And while Brock’s transparent thuggery and hardhearted self-interestedness is clearly a caricature of an up-by-his-bootstraps wheeler-dealer, it’s pretty easy to see parallels between his ruthless expansion of his empire and that of many moguls today, including a certain billionaire private equity manager. Brock’s self-assured assumption not only that he can buy the legislation he requires to grow his business, but also that his wealth should give him influence seems, at first, reductive and implausible, until you realize that his tactic is just a very unsophisticated and naive version of ALEC (which is funded by the über-wealthy Koch brothers, among others; and if you don’t know what ALEC is, follow the link!!).
Okay, now I’m getting depressed. Thankfully, the production is also quite funny, so there’s no need to dwell too much on how much influence over our lives and laws the Brocks of today’s world can buy (and, happily, in the fairy tale land of Born Yesterday he gets a very satisfying comeuppance). The key comic role in the show is Billie Dawn, and Melissa Miller delivers. In the early scenes, she gets this wonderful “lights-are-on-but-nobody’s-home” expression in her eyes that beautifully signals how disconnected her character is from the life of the mind — not so much because she is stupid but because she doesn’t know any better. Her character is dumb but not dim, and Miller conveys an effective combination of worldliness and innocence in the role. Ted Koch gives a spirited and commanding performance as Brock (a role that shares some qualities with the character he played in God of Carnage last year on the same stage), and Michael McKenzie plays Brock’s ex-Washington-insider lawyer with world-weary cynicism. Daniel Krell is a convincing idealistic intellectual, but as a romantic interest he leaves a bit to be desired — he’s got a kind of Clark Kent vibe going but unfortunately there’s not enough Superman charisma behind it to stand up to Miller’s wattage. John Shepard, Larry John Meyers, Jill Keating, Ken Bolden, James Fitzgerald, and Amy Landis are all strong in their supporting roles, and Ted Pappas’s direction is sure-handed and brisk.