Review: “Born Yesterday” at Hilberry Theatre
Hilberry Theatre, Detroit
Through April 11, 2009
When a character yells, “I’m couther than you!” and the entire audience bursts into a singular roar of laughter you can count the play a success. This indignant and flustered response seems only fitting for Harry after his former-chorus-line girlfriend, Billie, decides to tell him otherwise. It’s a risky move on her part, knowing how short Harry’s temper can be, but that the blonde and brainless Billie is even making decisions for herself is the real surprise. What isn’t surprising, however, is that the Hilberry Theatre has put together another vibrant, amusing show. It is clearly a crowd pleaser from the audience response witnessed last Saturday at the matinee of “Born Yesterday” by Garson Kanin. This hilarious, strongly acted and beautifully designed show is not to be missed—even when the weather may try to persuade you otherwise!
“Born Yesterday” takes place in the autumn months of 1946 in a pricey hotel room in Washington, D.C. The suite is being rented out by Harry Brock (Brian P. Sage), a successful New Jersey businessman of questionable moral character, and his entourage—his servile cousin and fellow thug, Eddie Brock (Erman Jones), and his ditsy girlfriend, Billie Dawn (Christina Flynn). In the midst of a profitable but shifty business transaction, the three are visited frequently by Harry’s ever-inebriated lawyer, Ed Devery (Alan Ball), and the senator they bought for the job, Norval Hedges (Rob Pantano). Normally, the hot-pink-and-teal clad, gum-smacking, high-heeled Billie would simply equate the new people and places to nothing more than the signing of some extra paperwork, but for the sake of appearances in their new high-status situation, Harry and Ed want to smarten her up a bit. So, Harry decides to hire Paul Verrall (Aaron Kirby), a young journalist, who had just interviewed Harry, to tutor Billie in academics and etiquette for $200 a week.
Left alone to discuss the details and become acquainted, Billie and Paul find they are interested in more than being the pawns in another one of Harry’s business transactions. With a kiss goodnight, they agree to begin their studies immediately the following day. Billie makes remarkable progress in the two month span implied by the 15-minute intermission and begins to question everything around her. This happens to include Harry and his business, most of which she owns, thanks to all those signatures she had been mindlessly scrawling for years.
Harry, however, doesn’t appreciate Billie’s interference and takes out his frustration on her physically. Banishing her from the hotel room until she can “behave herself,” he confers with his lawyer about the situation. Ed suggests Harry should marry Billie—something he had been pushing for years since Billie began acquiring more and more ownership of the company. Harry is hesitant about the idea, but when Billie doesn’t return for hours, he softens toward it, reminded by his concern of how much he cares for her. After Harry resigns himself to bed, Billie and Paul sneak in to steal some paperwork to expose Harry and his partners as crooks. But when Billie is caught packing her belongings after Paul has left with the documents, Harry’s anger—toward her and Paul—returns with a vengeance…
With a show this well-cast, it quickly becomes clear the Hilberry is not hurting for talented, hard-working actors. Harry Brock and Billie Dawn are incredible works of art. Sage, not overly preoccupied with affecting Harry’s thuggish, New Jersey accent, manages to give him depth of character. Sometimes likeable and at other times despicable, Harry’s reactions are well-suited to his personality and his most ridiculous lines seem altogether natural. Flynn’s Billie is equally commendable and her transition from bubble-gum blonde to ever-improving student is complex and intriguing. I could see Billie struggling with what she was becoming, how she was thinking, and how these changes were at such drastic odds with the person she once was. It is thrilling to be able to watch her wrestle with that internal conflict as she morphs into an entirely new Billie.
Ed Devery’s state of constant inebriation is exquisite and perfectly understated. The sheep-like thug that is Eddie is stereotypical without being grating. Push-over Senator Hedges is as diplomatic as his backbone is nonexistent, which is emphasized by his wife’s (Safiya Johnson) boisterous sense of over-importance. The members of the hotel staff are professional as always—well, as much as they can be under such loose and clunky circumstances. And Paul: Paul is a delicious mixture of the ambitious geek from high school, who ends up handsomer than the popular girls would have expected, and the steadfast, journalistic watchdog—determined, worldly and far too intelligent and overqualified to be paid as little as he probably is as a journalist. They are all brilliant.
And so is the set! To affect a luxurious, $235-a-day hotel suite from 1946, scenic designer William F. Moser and properties artisan Jacee Rohlck pulled out all the stops—thick crown molding; arch-shaped wall nooks, backlit and dressed with large arrangements of flowers in tall, opulent vases; two sets of French doors; a short, spiral staircase; lovely vintage furniture with dark woods and rich fabrics; indoor pillars; fancy rugs; the stage is even carpeted! Behind the set hangs a backdrop, painted like the sky with the tops of the Washington Monument and the Capital Building peeking over the suite’s walls. As the show progresses, the props become more and more of a character unto themselves. What begins as a few vases, ash trays, glasses of cigarettes and a full bar—replete with pour spouts on every bottle—is augmented by a record player, a globe, a bronze bust, paperwork, envelopes, pencils, newspapers and so many books there is barely any table space left to set a glass. A veritable inventory nightmare, it makes the set as integral a part of the story as the characters inhabiting it. And it is beautifully done.
“Born Yesterday”, with its quirky one-liners and even quirkier characters, is an absolute must-see. It is humorous, intelligent, thought-provoking, visually engaging and thoroughly enjoyable. Take the time, brave the weather and treat yourself!
“Born Yesterday” runs January 9 – April 11 at the Hilberry Theatre at 4841 Cass Avenue in Detroit at Wayne State University. Tickets range from $25 – $30 or $10 for students on the day of the performance. Show dates and times vary and are available on their website: