Rachel Weinberg has been a freelance theater critic around Chicago for more than three years. She is currently pursuing a Masters of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Prior to that, Rachel worked for two years in digital marketing at Goodman Theatre and spent a season as a Marketing Apprentice for Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City. You can read all of Rachel's reviews at RachelWeinbergReviews.com and find her on Twitter @RachelRWeinberg.
Pictured: Eliza Stoughton. Photo by Johnny Knight.
Review: BORN YESTERDAY at Remy Bumppo Theatre
By Rachel Weinberg
Garson Kanin’s 1946 comedy BORN YESTERDAY, now being revived at Remy Bumppo, encompasses a battle of wits between the selfish and wealthy junkman Harry Brock—with a penchant for physical violence—and his unsophisticated blonde girlfriend Billie Dawn. When Brock and Billie arrive in Washington D.C. (the entire play takes place inside a lavish hotel room in the nation’s capital, opulently designed by Grant Sabin), he soon hires the nerdy and warm-hearted journalist Paul Verell in the hopes of making Billie more presentable. But the delicious twist in BORN YESTERDAY, of course, comes from the fact that once Billie becomes armed with knowledge, she aspires to be something more than Brock’s polished other half. And while BORN YESTERDAY’s “battle of the sexes” can feel outdated and still uncomfortably stereotypical in spots, some of Kanin’s dialogue feels ripped from the current headlines. In those moments, BORN YESTERDAY is elevated from throwback comedy and becomes a mirror to the present moment.
It also certainly helps that director David Darlow’s cast breathes so much life into their characters, making the material feel fresher in its more dated moments. As Harry Brock, Sean M. Sullivan makes clear the role’s unquenchable thirst for wealth and his desire to control Billie as the arm candy by his side. Sullivan beautifully conveys this conniving character in his posture; he leans back like a king when seated and gesticulates wildly. It’s an intriguing balance between aggressive and sloppy. Greg Matthew Anderson sweetly wears his heart on his sleeve as the well-meaning and serious Paul Verell. Shawn Douglass does fine work as Brock’s attorney Ed Devery, and Drew Shirley amuses as Brock’s nephew Eddy. But the star turn of the night rightly belongs to Eliza Stoughton as Billie Dawn. Though on paper Billie certainly veers the stereotypical “dumb blonde,” Stoughton finds so much humanity in the role and also has the chance to wear Izumi Inaba’s magnificent costumes. Stoughton’s Billie may certainly seem naive, and she lends an almost irritating voice to the character, but she also makes the character so earnest.
In her portrayal of Billie’s frenzied desire to educate herself about the world around her, Stoughton brings the role very much into the present. As Paul remarks to Billie about halfway through the play, “A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.” Stoughton’s Billie takes that statement quite seriously—and though BORN YESTERDAY is a comedy, those are serious words for audiences to live by as well. And that is especially true when Brock tries to bring Billie down. “Don’t be nervous just because you’ve read a book,” Sullivan sneers with chilling delivery in one scene, “You’re as dumb as you ever were.” To see a man put down a woman with such words as written in 1946 on a 2017 stage is remarkable. And it’s certainly those moments that make BORN YESTERDAY most compelling. Yet the central conceit still remains widely drawn, and Kanin’s characters still verge on the stereotypical. In this production, though, Darlow clearly aims to find a balance between the comedic and the topical—and that’s an aim worth applauding.