Well, if you saw the last remake of Born Yesterday with Melanie Griffith, John Goodman and Don Johnson – please eradicate this decidedly unpleasant experience from your mind. Rather try and get a hold on the original movie by George Cukor – with William Holden and the marvellous Judie Holliday if you want to prepare for this theatre event in advance (or if you’re unlucky enough not to make it to Broadway in time).
Because this show is a must see. I booked it for Robert Sean Leonard and Jim Belushi – and to my surprise found the female lead, Nina Arianda, the true and real star of this production, easily outshining and outplaying Leonard (Wilson from the TV-show House) and even being a brilliant match to the leading comedian on stage, Belushi!
The young actress which I hadn’t seen or heard of before was absolutely fabulous as the not so dumb Billie, who discovers that not only can learning be fun with the right incentive (well, not in this case, though, but I’ll explain that later) but also that she easily outwits all the high and mighty men who try to use her for their corrupt political games in Washington. And all that “with a little Knowledge” – so the original title of the play.
The story is probably very well known: Harry Brock who made his millions with trash and is proud of his humble beginnings, is coming to Washington to buy himself more influence in the form of a Senator – with him comes his girlfriend; former dancer Billie Dawn whose life now consists of wearing expensive clothes and furs, entertaining Harry and signing papers, as she unknowingly is holding a high percentage of her corrupt boyfriend’s empire. Harry was quite happy with her easygoing ways, but now – in Washington – he realises how “dumb” this blonde is. And he organises an out of work journalist, Paul Verrall, who’s living in a less posh part of the hotel he’s in to “polish” Billie in the finer ways of life so that she might survive society events in tricky Washington. Never would Harry have guessed that not only is Billie not at all the dumb blonde he had accused her of being, she’s just not educated. Nor that his girl would realise what she was used for and emancipates herself from him.
You need of course strong actors to not veer into cheap slapstick and still be believable – the original after all is more than half a century old. But with the likes of the fabulous Nina Arianda – who spoke the squeaky part like a pro and made you love her instantly; even more so after she discovers books and her intellect in the process and stands up to Harry – and Jim Belushi – whose self made millionaire attitude is totally believable and who owns the stage through sheer talent every time he’s on – it’s easy to transport the idea of the play even though the characters are wearing period clothing. The idea that a woman can have brains and be pretty, can be honest and fall in love with someone who loves her mind, a novelty then, unfortunately isn’t that common nowadays to not be a topic modern enough for a current show.
The way Jim Belushi portraits Harry Brock – as someone who crawled out of his dirt poor origins to someone to be reckoned with – is endearing even though it repulses you a bit. It is clear from the get go that most of Harry’s outbursts are born from insecurity and the need to confirm his superiority in a less than friendly environment. And Belushi is just grand – no matter if he’s in a suit or in socks and an evening gown, he owns the stage and shares it only with Arianda.
Which brings me to the weakest part – and the weakest actor of this play. Robert Sean Leonard’s Wilson plays second fiddle to House, and he plays third or fourth fiddle in the current cast of Born Yesterday. I saw the play in pre-runs (more to that later) and met him before as he entered the theatre – he is incredibly friendly and nice to his fans. Unfortunately neither his part nor it seems his talent are juicy / big enough to hold a candle to Arianda and Belushi’s comedic timing. Yes, he is supposed to be the shy journalist and teacher who discovers the gem hidden behind all that make-up and those fancy dresses. But his portrayal of Paul never makes you see the love he harbours for the girl he can’t have – until he can. He is a bit wooden and truest when he has to play “uncomfortable”. All of which probably wouldn’t have been that plain to see, if it weren’t for the massive talents of both Belushi and Arianda.
Belushi said in an interview that he wanted to play this part since he was 19, that he liked and understood Harry – and therefore he actively pursued the producers to hire him. I like that attitude – even more so when it’s paired with true talent. – When I was waiting for Belushi in front of the theatre I finally talked to a theatre hand who said: Oh, Mr Belushi has been here for about three hours. He’s rehearsing the fight scene and still going over some lines with Nina. First I thought – another actor who doesn’t know his text? But when I saw them on stage together I realised: that was just polishing an already shiny play to perfection. Despite the fact that I saw a pre-run version, there were no hesitance, no insecurity, no faltering on stage – just a brilliant pair of comedians working together with high precision and timing.
Yes, I loved it. Yes, Belushi is effing great – and so’s Arianda.