Classic Comedy Born Yesterday Remains Surprisingly Relevant Today


Co-stars Hayley Burnside and Greg Hinjosa
Co-stars Hayley Burnside and Greg Hinjosa

Born Yesterday was not itself born yesterday. Garson Kanin's comedy of boorish manners entered the world in 1946 and ran on Broadway for more than 13 months. It enjoyed a Broadway revival in 1989, again in 2011. It was adapted for film twice, in 1950 and 1993, and has been a staple of regional theaters for the past 60 years.

So, though it lacks the pedigree of Medea, which The Classic Theatre staged last fall, or The Tempest, scheduled for next winter, Born Yesterday qualifies as a minor American classic; it has stood the test of time, albeit measured in decades, not centuries. The sad wonder is how timely this tale of political corruption remains in 2016. Though the $235/night that he pays for a hotel room no longer evokes the awe it would have in 1946, the wealthy, boastful businessman who comes to the nation's capital intent on asserting his control might have stepped out of the current presidential campaign. With a ludicrous coiffure and Jersey accent, Greg Hinojosa's Harry Brock, a self-made bully who rails against regulations and thinks he can buy anything, seems modeled after a certain contemporary candidate. With Eddie Brock, his factotum and enforcer (Gabriel Sanchez), and Ed Devery, the servile, self-hating attorney (Byrd Bonner) who has jettisoned his principles for a $100,000 retainer, Mr. Brock goes to Washington to procure legal cover for a scrap metal scam.

"You're not couth," says Billie Dawn to Harry, who pays to keep her in his entourage and bed and retorts: "I'm couther than you are." Billie, who fractures English as readily as she snaps her chewing gum, is initially content to be a ditzy moll: "I'm stupid, and I like it." However, Billie's backwardness embarrasses Harry, and he pays Paul Verrall, an idealistic journalist, $200 a week "to show her the ropes." Soon, Billie is quaffing quantities of high culture, falling for Paul and turning the tables on Harry. Watching a blustering, misogynistic brute get his comeuppance is almost as satisfying in May as it might be in November.

Director Matthew Byron Cassi's staging is never less than entertaining, his cast never less than equal to their task. Vamping, ogling and cavorting, Hayley Burnside's Billie chews the scenery along with her gum. Like Eliza Doolittle, she traverses a trajectory from lowly victim to classy victor. In the play's clunky and predictable second act, Nick Lawson's righteous Paul, looking, in his black-framed glasses, a bit like Clark Kent, rallies Billie to enlightenment and civic virtue.

Born Yesterday was born during the postwar surge in higher education, when Harry's declaration: "There's nothing you can tell me that I need to know," seemed arrogantly un-American. A resurgence of proud ignorance makes Harry our contemporary.