'Born Yesterday' has political message both timely, timeless

| Friday, Oct. 5, 2012, 9:18 p.m.


As politicians, voters and pundits enter the final phase of the 2012 election cycle, Pittsburgh Public Theater opens its 2012-13 season with a play that's both classic and timely.

It's been 66 years since Garson Kanin's comedy “Born Yesterday” debuted on Broadway with its behind-the-scenes look at the influence peddling and secret deals of Washington politics.

The play's comedy and drama revolve around scrap-dealer Harry Brock, who has bullied and schemed his way into prosperity.

Now worth $15 million, he has come to Washington to buy himself a senator and a piece of legislation that will guarantee he gets even richer.

The one potential stumbling block is his long-time, live-in girlfriend Billie Dawn, a former chorus girl whose speech and behavior will hamper his hob-nobbing with Washington's elite. To smooth off some of her rough edges, Harry's lawyer and adviser suggests he hire a tutor to smarten her up.

After a slow start, Billie takes to her new task — and her tutor, a reporter with a progressive and populist world view.

He and Billie succeed beyond anyone's expectations.

As is generally true of the Public's shows, the production is neatly and lavishly realized with good support from James Noone's upscale, buttoned-down, period-accurate hotel suite filled with Colonial-style details and accessories.

Costume designer David Zyla outfits both women and men in clothing that tells us much about the time the play is set in and the personalities and status of the people wearing them.

Director Ted Pappas emphasizes the comedy's abundant, intelligent humor, as well as its message about the power of an informed, intelligent populace to guarantee that government works for all of the people, not just some of the people.

You often get the sense that the cast is working a little too hard and loud to make sure the audience is having a good time. Possibly that will lessen as they relax and allow Kanin's clear and clever dialogue to do the work for them.

The interplay between Ted Koch's Harry Brock and Melissa Miller's Billie Dawn is masterly.

They play nicely together, telegraphing the rough-and-tumble relationship between a couple that's been together for nine years and who don't necessarily need words to communicate. Their game, completed with almost no dialogue, speaks volumes.

However, Harry is never less than a bully. His verbal and physical mistreatment of Billie provides a jarring, often-shocking note for contemporary audiences.

Daniel Krell plays Billie's tutor, Paul Verrall, with a touching blend of simplicity, intelligence and power.

Also of note within the cast of 13 are Larry John Meyers as a cautious-but-corrupt Senator, and John Shepard as Harry's cousin and lackey Eddie Brock.

As Harry's devious, amoral and hard-drinking lawyer and adviser, Ed Devery, actor Michael McKenzie gets the final word in this thoughtful, razor-sharp comedy.

He offers Kanin's belief that an increasingly informed and educated public will outwit those who would corrupt and diminish democracy with sincerity and conviction.

Though it's meant to be upbeat, it may also leave audiences with the dismaying recognition that the struggle continues.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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