Born Yesterday Reborn in Philadelphia
When Born Yesterday premiered on Broadway on February 2, 1946, the world had not yet heard of the Enron scandal, the downfall of the Martha Stewart Empire, or the pro-business foibles of the Bush administration. Perhaps for this reason, the present is an exceptionally appropriate time to resurrect the play, as People’s Light and Theatre Company plans to do during May and June.
Born Yesterday features New York junk-tycoon Harry Brock, who is set on using his vast wealth to influence politicians in Washington, D.C. To this end, Brock hires an idealistic journalist to give his socially graceless and seemingly fluff-brained girlfriend, ex-chorus girl Billie Dawn, a patina of sophistication. Billie Dawn turns out not to be so fluff-brained after all, and she and the journalist team up to counter Brock’s plans. The character of Brock, who is an ambitious, self-made businessman continually seeking legally defensible ways to commit illegal acts in the interest of increasing his own wealth, is easily recognizable. On any given day, the modern Harry appears periodically in the news, standing at the center of corporate scandals, and often—but not often enough—appears in handcuffs. He is a symbol of what can go wrong with American capitalism.
The play itself was written much ahead of its time. Its themes foreshadowed many important American trends to come, such as the rise of the women’s movement and consumerism, increasing corruptibility of CEO’s, and the domination of Capitol Hill by special-interest groups, big business advocates and lobbyists. The play can be said to have hit a nerve early on. Its first run on Broadway lasted for 1,642 performances-an enormous life for a non-musical production, and earned its lead actress, Judy Holliday, a Tony award for her portrayal of Billie Dawn. Holliday went on to star in the successful 1950 screen adaptation, for which she won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
People’s Light and Theatre Company approaches Born Yesterday with an acute awareness of the play’s historical significance. “It’s sort of saying it’s ever been thus,” says actor Stephen Novelli, who plays the part of Brock’s cynical lawyer, Ed Devery. “There has always been a struggle between people with high ideals and people who try to manipulate laws for their own personal gain.”
Ken Marini, the director, also recognizes the play’s timeliness. However, he does not feel that it is necessary for his production to go out of its way to emphasize parallels between the plotline and events in the news. People’s Light and Theatre’s production will be set in a period contemporary to the play’s 1946 premiere, and no attempts will be made to modernize the story. Marini is also quick to point out that there are other things about this play, in addition to its political relevance, that audiences will want to see. “It’s very funny,” he says. There is also a strongly romantic aspect to the story, and romance is perennially relevant. “We have a terrific cast,” says Novelli, who adds, “We’re hoping it will be fun and also thoughtful.”
While he hopes for a favorable audience reaction, Marini seems to revel in the uncertainty of live theatre. “The great thing about theatre is it’s like a chemistry project,” Marini says. “You have a theory about what will happen when you combine certain elements… but you never know if it will work or explode in your face until you do it.” In spite of this, Marini remains confident and optimistic about his production. “My hope is there’s a lot of laughter,” he says, “and it also makes people think.”
Born Yesterday will run through June 20 on People’s Light and Theatre’s Main Stage at 39 Conestoga Road in Malvern. For additional information, call (——) or visit the People’s Light Website.