Twenty-two years after Ed Asner starred in “Born Yesterday,” he’s still grumbling about his reviews from the New York critics.
Jim Belushi (“The Defenders,” “According to Jim”), now playing that role, could have the same complaint.
It’s not the actors’ fault.
Harry Brock is such a one-note character that the current revival at the Cort Theatre makes you weary of him very early on. He is a pig-headed bully and slaps around anyone who dares to talk back.
Harry can buy whatever he wants because he’s a self-made multimillionaire who has been working since he was a child. His racket is the junk business, and it’s 1946, so World War II was good for him.
He works hard but dishonestly and takes what he wants. As such he’s been able to buy the services of a chorine, and a former assistant attorney general is now his consigliere. He also has a senator on the payroll.
Harry is so boorish and it’s so obvious that money can’t buy him class, you can’t help but wonder just who ticked off playwright Garson Kanin to conjure up this capitalist tool.
The entire play unfolds in an overdone hotel room, which would appeal to those with obvious rather than good taste. It goes for $235 a night – and this is 1946, when a chambermaid earned $18 a week, as she tells us in the opening scene.
As unchanging as Harry’s piggish behavior is, Billie, the chorus girl, has more depth. It’s hard to not fall in love with Nina Arianda as Billie. She’s nominated for a Tony, and pretty much walks away with the play. Judy Holliday originated the role of Billie and later Madeline Kahn played her against Asner.
Arianda’s voice alone — Betty Boop as a moll — is worth an award. She’s a poor kid who hooked up with a guy who gave her all she ever wanted – two mink coats.
Now that Harry is in Washington, D.C., to grease palms and see how much power he can amass, he worries that Billie could embarrass him. So he hires Robert Sean Leonard (“House”) to tutor her in just about everything.
Naturally, they have to fall in love. Leonard does a great job as the beleaguered intellectual who loves Billie.
When this play originally opened in 1946, it ran for 1,642 performances, the mark of a huge hit. And coming just after the war, with its snappy dialog and questioning the power structure, it was right for the time.
Though revivals of far more distant times work on Broadway (witness this season’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “The Merchant of Venice”), what was cutting-edge political commentary then does not necessarily work now.