Review: Watch Born Yesterday, don't act that way

See for yourself
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  September 8, 2010

Remember the euphoria of the early Internet years, when our new interconnectedness was to be a great equalizer of knowledge and intelligence, and do marvelous things, cheaply and instantaneously, for the competence of our citizenry? We'll come back to that. For now, let's recall that a similar sort of optimism accompanied the post-World War II era, when the economy was booming, the Good War had made the world rational and safe for democracy, and millions of Americans were taking advantage of the GI Bill. It was in this upbeat atmosphere that playwright Garson Kanin penned Born Yesterday, the story of a ditzy ingénue and kept woman named Billie Dawn, whose life is transformed, empowered, and redeemed by a liberal education.

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WHY I OUGHTA . . . Learn to think independently.
The comedy, which opened on Broadway in 1946 and was adapted for the screen in 1950 by George Cukor, is now on stage in Hallowell, in a community-theater production by the Gaslight Theater. Ashley St. Pierre stars as Billie, the ex-chorus girl who experiences a personal intellectual renaissance. Rest assured that empowerment is not what her man, the crooked, boorish scrap metal king Harry Brock (Bill McLean, with dashes of both Stanley Kowalski and Blago in his charismatic bluster) has in mind. He's just moved himself and Billie to a luxury hotel suite in Washington, DC (rendered in tones similar to those of the Oval Office redo, with perhaps a little too much busyness in the way of platforms) in order to buy a senator's collusion in loosening profit-prohibitive business regulations. And he needs his mistress to appear well-mannered and informed among the political elite. So he hires, of all people, a young New Republic reporter, Paul Verrall (James Paine, sympathetic and understated), at once an idealist and a cynic, to groom her.

You can imagine how that works out. Harry is duly warned by his fallen and increasingly sloshed former attorney-general lackey Ed Devery (Frank Omar, sour and wry in exquisite double-breasted suits), but to no avail: Billie goes on to read Tom Paine, fall in love, and develop knowledge and a conscience that will best Harry's ethically barren big business.

As this human analogue of the American demos, St. Pierre sustains Billie's chorus-girl spunk charmingly, and quite convincingly conveys the evolution of her innate intelligence — from shallow street-smarts to informed civic empathy. She cuts a great figure in her crimson and sapphire outfits (nice work by the Gaslight wardrobe folks), and has a wonderfully engaging physical presence as she struts, pouts, ponders, and pounces. An ingénue can be a cloying creature, but hers resists saccharine with refreshing candor, and she has some lovely little moments: Watch her gaze longingly toward her dictionary, inaccessible across the room, when she's asked if she's one of the senator's "constituents."

The final, rosy resolution imagines a nation in which more and more constituents follow Billie's lead. "People are getting smarter all the time," Paul tells Harry. "And when they know enough, that'll be the end of you." Billie adds that "when you steal from the government, you steal from yourself, you big ox." It's more than a little depressing to consider these sentiments in the context of the current cultural mood. I probably don't need to remind anyone of Tea Partiers blogging gems like "Keep your government hands off my Medicare," or of Glenn Beck's magnificently fallacious chalk logic. Born Yesterday's prescription reminds that when it comes to information, more isn't necessarily better.

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