A ditzy blonde can always be counted upon for a laugh in a comedy. Yet in the case of Born Yesterday, she is also the fixture that gives the play its soul. In this excellent Doug Hughes-directed revival, Nina Arianda as Billie Dawn displays not only the discovery of a woman’s independence, but also the awakening of a spirit.
Set in Washington, D.C. in 1946, Harry Brock (Jim Belushi) is a blustery tycoon who blows into town with his trophy girlfriend Billie (Arianda) with plans to make millions through a method in which Uncle Sam would not approve. Worried that the thickheaded Billie will clash with his high-influence potential cohorts, Harry hires Paul Verrall (Robert Sean Leonard) as a tutor to sharpen her edges. However, Harry awakens a sleeping monster in Billie that will foil his political plans.
Directed with thorough care by Hughes, Arianda creates a window into Billie that begins foggy and gradually clears to allow full visibility. Taking playwright Garson Kanin’s quip-filled script, Arianda nails the jokes in Act I by conveying Billie’s ignorance. In Act II, her Billie’s humor changes to reveal her newfound confidence and feistiness. Yet it is more than Kanin’s solid writing (which holds up shockingly well from its debut in 1946); every gesture and expression from Arianda builds upon who Billie is. I left the theater feeling as if I knew Billie in real life. Arianda gives true insight into Billie, doing so with a vibrant and ambitious energy that reflects her eagerness to be on stage. Arianda tackles this character with such force that she has left no inch of Billie’s stage time unmarked.
Arianda has fiery chemistry with Belushi, who seems extremely committed and comfortable as the bossy Harry. Their arguing and cheap shots at each other somehow feel fresh compared to other tired examples of volatile couples. By belittling and dismissing her, Belushi creates a cage in which we see Billie is trapped and manages to make it both comedic and frightening. His is also a fully-thought performance. While Arianda is busy filling silences with some golden gestures, Belushi’s presence and delivery equally fill the stage. It is often difficult to decide which performer to look at. Read more