Born Yesterday

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By Philip Pearce

I ENJOYED the opening night of The Western Stage’s new production of Born Yesterday once I got over some heavy-handed opening “improvements” that have been added to the script. Jeff McGrath, a director I have always admired and frequently praised on this web site, has chosen to launch the play twenty minutes before curtain time by bringing on most of the cast and having them mill around the Studio Theater pretending to be patrons of a sleazy night club operated by the two central characters, Harry Brock and Billie Dawn. They all dance and chatter and improvise interactions with audience members and, for the life of me, I’m still wondering why.

Does McGrath think Studio Theater patrons need extra insight into the leading characters?  Has he decided Garson Kanin’s exemplary script doesn’t make it sufficiently clear that Brock is a belligerent money-grabbing roughneck and Billie a bubble-headed blonde? Or was all this forced merriment a way of suggesting that what lay ahead was the kind of free-for-all American farce that’s full of dancing teenagers, slamming doors, mistaken identities and snappy exit lines—which Born Yesterday isn’t?

I put aside my puzzlement when the actual play began, only to see an unlisted character (was that Fred Herro?) march in, all done up like a Russian diplomat in fur hat and briefcase. Greeted and welcomed—as “Vladimir” I think—he then disappeared through one of the bedroom doors of John Englehorn’s tasteful set, and only returned and exited in the final moments of the last act. If this was a wink and nudge at present day Washington and Moscow the audience either didn’t get the joke or, if they did, didn’t find it funny enough to laugh at.

Once all the cute creativity was over, the craft and humor of the original story and the work of a talented cast took over. It all became a fast and funny take on a 60-year-old Broadway and movie hit that reminds us, at a point when we really need reminding, that a democracy only survives if it’s made up of wise and informed citizens.

The plot of Born Yesterday follows the pleasant Cinderella girl pattern set by Pygmalion/My Fair Lady. Like Shaw’s Eliza, Kanin’s Billie Dawn is linked to a pompous and oppressive guy who decides she needs a crash course in the social graces. Like Eliza, ex-chorus girl Billie (“I said lines!”) proves to be such a quick study that her newfound education empowers her to defeat and disarm her oppressive benefactor.

Heather Osteraa is a revelation in the role. She adopts the required nasal New York squeak but never lets it mask the ins and outs of a complex, layered and ultimately lovable character. No production of Born Yesterday can really succeed if Billie doesn’t do justice to her famous gin rummy scene with boyfriend Harry. It’s a central element of her characterization: the erratic skill she demonstrates with the cards gives the lie to Harry’s claim that she’s just a “stupid broad“ and it helps make believable her quick subsequent  responses to art, music and political literature. The gin sequence is a highpoint of the new TWS version, because Osteraa gives it her own individual stamp, refusing to copy Judy Holliday’s Oscar-winning movie rendition. Where Holiday concentrates so obsessively on her gin cards that she almost misses the fact that she‘s already taken another game from Harry, Osteraa’s Billie is already so blithely confident that her annoying humming of  “Anything Goes” is offered as a teasing challenge to Harry’s inferiority as a card player.

Equity actor Scott Free’s Harry is appropriately strident, loud and conceited but never lets the man become just a Johnny-one-note baddie. Harry’s real if stunted humanity usually emerges when he truculently confesses, “I love that broad.” Surprisingly, Free doesn’t make much of that line, but instead mines sympathy for Harry in his final, desperate scramble to keep Billie from running off with her tutor, Paul Verrall.

As the highbrow reporter who first educates and then woos Billie, Chuck Church is convincing enough though I would have welcomed a more ironic and leisured and a less fast-talking approach to the part.

It’s always a treat to watch the gifted Jeffrey T. Heyer at work and he’s on hand here to play the most interesting of the three major male characters. Ed Devery is the slick, philosophic lawyer/mouthpiece who keeps Harry Brock just windward of the law by insuring that all his junkyard business contracts are signed not by Harry but by his unwitting “silent partner” Billie. Devery sees the moral implications of this and of Harry’s wheeling and dealing for money and political clout with a crooked Senator named Norval Hedges, played by Dennis Hungridge with a nice undertone of slime hidden beneath a benign senatorial surface. Devery is never duped but always too boozed up and personally implicated to do anything but mordantly connive in all this dirty work. Heyer has never been better than in the play’s final elegiac words, a rueful toast to the enlightened dumb broads of this wicked world and the inspired eggheads who enlighten them.

It’s a pleasing show which manages to hit most of the marks in a clever script in spite of some misjudged efforts to add gratuitous and unnecessary hokum.

It plays weekends through July 2nd.

Betrayal

betrayalBy Philip Pearce

SOMERSET MAUGHAM said that writing a good play means discovering what it’s about and then sticking stubbornly to the point. Harold Pinter’s Betrayal does just that. The title tells what it’s about, and the script never looks at anything but the combinations and permutations of betraying or being betrayed—in this case by marital infidelity.

In major earlier works, like The Birthday Party and The Homecoming, Pinter’s characters act from motives ranging from the puzzling to the impenetrable. Confused, challenged and sometimes repelled, you still can’t stop watching these sordid strangers build their own alien world with its own murky patterns of believability.

With Betrayal, which just opened at the Pac Rep Circle Theater, it’s different.

Emma, her husband Robert and her lover Jerry are anything but grubby enigmas. Informed, witty, moving in civilized surroundings, tastefully dressed, they seem like characters who would fit seamlessly into a Coward or Rattigan comedy. It’s what Pinter does with this familiar material that makes it so disturbing and memorable. To start with, he tightens the tension by upending normal chronology. Scene 1 starts with the aftermath of Jerry and Emma’s affair and we move, sequence by sequence, back to its beginnings seven years earlier.

Who knew what about whom and when did they know it? Betrayal happens in a world where lying is as natural as breathing and what seems to be real or true now is unmasked a scene or so later as false and self-serving. At one point Emma appears to break through the ugly crust of deception and tell the truth about when and how Robert has learned she is betraying him with Jerry. But a later (earlier) sequence reveals, almost casually, that her refreshing breakthrough into truth is just another face-saving lie. There are wonderful ironies. Jerry feels huffy and ill-used when Emma admits that she’s pregnant, not by him but by her legal spouse Robert.

Pinter is a master of the twists and turns dialogue takes to cover embarrassment or deception. It can be nervous repetition, as in the opening scene, where Emma and Jerry, no longer lovers, struggle to show interest in and a lingering affection for each other by asking again and again some form of “How are you? I hope you’re doing well.” Their repeated banal expressions of concern manage to seem sincere and at the same time subtly dismissive.

When Jerry and Robert, who are lifelong best friends, natter on inanely about differences between male and female baby tantrums or why women should never be involved in games of squash, Pinter isn’t ignoring Maugham’s advice and wandering off onto rabbit trails of empty banter. The irrelevancies are smoke screens hiding some new piece of betrayal or a defense against the possible revelation of an old one. People on stage, like people in life, don’t always say exactly what they mean. It’s called subtext and Pinter knows how to use it brilliantly.

All of this calls for incisive and subtle acting. Kenneth Kelleher has cast and ably directed three performers who know how to tell a story that depends as much on what isn’t happening on the surface as what is. Watch the gifted Julie Hughett as she listens to information being told her by Robert which threatens her relationship with Jerry in a way that Robert mustn’t know about but Jerry does. Without a touch of mugging, Hughett briefly but clearly projects both messages.

The two men are just as good. As the cuckolded Robert, Michael Ray Wisely is never the daunted victim. He shades his performance so that we are continually re-assessing how much he knows and how he is using it to feed and complicate his own pattern of deceptions.

Paul Jennings is excellent as a spontaneous and impulsive Jerry, who manages to persuade himself and almost to persuade us that, undetected by Robert, he can sleep regularly with Emma and still remain Robert’s best friend.

The three speak in convincingly British tones, possibly coached by the production’s only native born Brit, the wonderful Howard Burnham, who appears briefly but delightfully as a waiter with a heavy Italian accent.

Pinter didn’t conjure this story out of thin air. Before Betrayal opened at London’s National Theatre back in 1978 he showed the script to B.B.C. personality Joan Bakewell, who publicly expressed her indignation at the detailed parallels between Pinter’s text and an extramarital affair she had had with him between 1962 and 1969.

Another dictum of good play writing, but not from Somerset Maugham, is “write about what you know,” and I guess Betrayal does that too.

It continues in PRT’s Circle Theater through May 28th.