Why is it that political plays always seem timely? Perhaps it's because nothing in the American political landscape has changed during the last century. Or, at least, not enough's changed to make plays like Inland Valley Repertory Theatre's earnest production of Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday seem old school. Fact is, after our last particularly vicious political season, much of Kanin's sexagenarian text is as chord-striking as ever.
Directed by Kevin Slay, the action opens with a reporter chatting with a lowly, put-upon maid tidying an opulent hotel room. You know how much this room costs? $235 a night! she says [That's about $2,775 a night in 2013.], there ought to be a law against it! Against the room costing that much, or against people being able to afford it? Both! Careful, if people hear you, they might call you a communist, the reporter says with an affirming smile. Let 'em! Such sociopolitical tidbits are the heart of this classic comedy, where workaday folk clash with the world of high-class politicians and the big-money donors that pull their strings.
Suddenly, busting through the door is the story's jocular heavy, a bombastic mug called Harry [i.e. simian] Brock (Steve Siegel). Fresh on da Washington D-Scene, all da way from da Jersey shore, Harry's lookin' to buy him some US Senators. You see, he's a self-made "junk man," now super-rich, and loves to wave around lit Cuban cigars which he never seems to puff. He owns countless junkyards and, with some senatorial help, he's hopin' ta snatch up all the WWII scrap ("busted tanks an' such") in Europe; and get it shipped back to America ("where it belongs"), so he can resell it to da guv-a-ment.
In tow, are Harry's browbeaten right-hand man, Eddie (Michael Buczynski), and his equally subservient girlfriend, Billie Dawn, played by Adrianne Hampton like Betty Boop after a dose of helium. Thankfully her dog-whistle pitched accent fades during the more intimate scenes, allowing us momentary glimpses behind the façade. I much preferred Miss Hampton's real, endearing Billie over the larger-than-life, chorus girl stereotype. Led by Siegel and Hampton, the cast's gesticulations, expressions, and overall characterizations were so large it often seemed as if they were a note away from busting out a song/dance routine. Not sure if this was a directorial choice, or force of habit from the players' extensive musical theater backgrounds. Either way, it was all a bit much for my stage-side seat.
The notable exception being Spencer Wietzel, who saves the day as Clark Kent look-a-like Paul Verral, the svelte reporter who exposes the hairy thug's bribery scheme and steals the girl in the process. Wietzel's portrayal is impressive. Whether dumbfounded attraction to the leading lady, or defense of his political (libertarian?) philosophy, Wietzel handles the the role's various pathos with charming ease.
Tip o' the fedora to the crew, especially costume designer Jenny Senior, who lives up to the director Slay's program note that people dressed better back then.
To Kanin's credit, the text is not blatantly obsequious to one aisle side or the other. The D vs. R dilemma only rears its hideous visage in one quick exchange. While trying to "learn" her to be more highfalutin' at Harry's request, the incognito Man o' Steel asks Billie, What does democratic mean? She furrows her brow so the furthest seat can clearly see and proclaims, Not Republican! This leaves the audience to their own suppositions about which side is comprised of heroes or villains, making the show enjoyable for anyone regardless of their bent.
Just before the lights fade, the remaining characters raise their glasses and toast the People, and the noble Fight against Them. A moment which should be inspiring. But with six decades of hindsight, its more eulogy than congratulatory.
Born Yesterday continues (on Wednesday nights) at the Candlelight Pavilion until March 6. Get your tix by calling (909) 859-IVRT (4878).
LA theater reviews by LA Theater Critic.