Writing seriously about a play that might not be meant to be taken so seriously presents a risk, but the provocation embedded in the social message of Born Yesterday can’t be escaped.
Born Yesterday by Garson Kanin. Directed by Gus Kaikkonen. Staged by the Peterborough Players, Peterborough, New Hampshire, through August 23.
By Jim Kates
Time has not been good to Garson Kanin’s 1946 play Born Yesterday, not because the jokes have become outdated, but precisely because they haven’t. A post-World-War-II optimism suffuses the comedy’s premise: Fascism having been overthrown throughout the world, an enlightened American public will turn its attention to reinvigorating democracy and freedom by defeating homegrown greed, oppression, and political chicanery.
From the very first crack about the inequity of incomes between rich and poor to a final, bitter toast — ” To all the dumb chumps and all the crazy broads, past, present, and future, who thirst for knowledge and search for truth . . . who fight for justice and civilize each other” — we can not forget that not much has happened in seventy years. We’re still stuck in Act One.
That doesn’t stop us from laughing at the Peterborough Players’ production. We laugh. We laugh as Billie Dawn (Karen Peakes) learns to stand up to her bullying tycoon Harry Brock (Jack Koenig) through the simple act of being educated by the indignant journalist Paul Verrall (Steven Walters), who honestly believes that reading the newspapers will tell you what you need to know and the truth shall make you free. We laugh at the venal Senator Hedges (Michael Page) who represents the unlikely possibility that Congress is up for sale to a high bidder. (The script is careful to renind us that he is an anomaly, that Washington is still filled with honest legislators.) We laugh at the fallen lawyer Ed Devery (Kraig Swartz), who negotiates all the dirty deals through a haze of alcohol.
Perhaps we should laugh hardest and loudest at the innocent idealism that’s supposed to make this a comedy with a happy ending. Instead, that adds an uneasiness which complicates the story. We don’t chuckle at the high-mindedness. We take it as it’s given to us.
Director Gus Kaikkonen has not played up these roles as caricatures as I have seen in other productions. He has made Born Yesterday a comedy of character more than of plot. Koenig’s Brock is not a dumb ox, but a superficially suave and verbal bully whose mischievousness is sustained by an unlimited treasury. He blows his own trumpet in a manner all too familiar to us these days, an I-can-do-or-say-anything-because-I-have-money boorishness. Costume designer Lara de Bruijn must have been tempted to slap a yellow toupee on Koenig’s head, but that’s the kind of crassness this production resists. Brock has made his fortune in junk and trash, and trash and junk are what he knows. The end of the war, for him, simply provides him with new sources of junk and trash. Eventually, Brock finds himself genuinely baffled, stuck in a noble world that doesn’t speak his language.
Peakes, too, underplays the traditional brashness of Billie Dawn in favor of a vulnerability that explains her desire for improvement. Her mind and her backbone are toughened at the same time. When she tells Brock to “drop dead,” she does so with the quiet finality of serious thought. When she comes on to her tutor, it’s out of genuine interest, not just flirtation. When she understands her father, it’s a resolution.
Walters plays Verrall as a much more physically substantial presence than Koenig’s Brock, as if this were an allegory in which moral stature is signified by physical size. But he also supplies a softness that keeps him from unbalancing the relationship — he’s always Clark Kent, never Superman. Verrall is given the most difficult lines to pull off in Born Yesterday, the preachy series of lessons in self-improvement and the dangers of an uninformed electorate that Billie takes so much to head and heart. His own turn, his sudden discovery that he can learn from her, almost gets lost in the stirring shuffle.
All through this summer season it’s been a particular pleasure watching Kraig Swartz take on more mature roles, ripening into a powerful character actor. He brings a surprising depth to his work as Brock’s decadent consigliore, not playing your standard drunk, but giving us the portrait of a man for whom alcohol serves as an ethical anaesthetic. There is none of his clownish persona here — he has taken on stature.
Two actors in the Players’ company who are sometimes trapped in their own mannerisms successfully subsume those tics into their characters. I could vote for Michael Page’s Senator, knowing full well he’s taking money under (and across) the table, because he brings such gravitas to this character, who otherwise functions in the action of the play more as a stock figure than as a personality. And Tom Frey as Brock’s man-Friday cousin Eddie has finally found a role that takes full advantage of his sometimes unmodulated strengths, his physicality and a voice that can seem disconnected from its context.
Writing seriously about a play that might not be meant to be taken so seriously presents a risk, but the provocation embedded in the social message of Born Yesterday can’t be escaped. Watching this production of the play in the United States in 2015 is a valuable and double-visioned experience. What’s going on on the Peterborough stage may not be revolutionary, but it’s a funny play which, like Billie Dawn herself, knows more than it thinks it does.
Jim Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia. His translation of Mikhail Yeryomin: Selected Poems 1957-2009 (White Pine Press) is the winner of the second Cliff Becker Prize in Translation.