The movie "Born Yesterday" is easily one of my all-time favorites. I love to pop in the DVD on a rainy afternoon and luxuriate in the warm glow of Judy Holliday's star-making performance as Billie Dawn. As much as I also adore Bette Davis in "All About Eve" and Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard," I'm still really glad that Holliday won the Oscar for best actress that year over her two admittedly stellar competitors.
Attempts at recapturing the magic of Born Yesterday have been fairly dismal. An uninspired 1989 Broadway revival (which I saw during its Boston tryout) ran only 153 performances, despite the presence of the delightful but far-too-old-for-the-role Madeline Kahn. And the 1993 film remake with Melanie Griffith, Don Johnson, and John Goodman was leaden and mirthless.
Despite those lackluster outings, someone has seen fit to bring Born Yesterday back to Broadway again. The casting for the current revival came as a bit of a surprise at first. As is typical these days with Broadway plays, the cast features its share of Hollywood actors, but not, as I would have expected, in the central role of Billie Dawn. Jim Belushi ("According to Jim") plays Harry Brock, the Broderick Crawford role in the film, and Robert Sean Leonard ("House M.D.") steps into the William Holden role.
But for Billie, the producers have made the brave and ultimately production-saving choice of going with a relative unknown, one Nina Arianda, who makes here an absolutely smashing Broadway debut. I had heard great things about Arianda regarding last season's Venus in Fur, but this was my first time seeing her on stage. In short, she's sensational, and if you don't head right down to the Cort Theater and catch her in this otherwise workaday production, you're going to be kicking yourself for years to come. If Arianda is out, demand your money back and come back another day. She's really that good.
Arianda appears never to have watched the "Born Yesterday" movie, and thank whichever orthodox deity you personally hold dear for that, because her take here is fresh and funny and full of charming individual touches that make this production, at least when Arianda is on-stage, a non-stop delight.
As for the piece itself, despite my love for the film, I must admit that the play is a bit of a creak-fest. Garson Kanin's script is basically a preachy civics lesson in three acts. There's a lot of patriotic moralizing about how the government is for the people and by the people, and blah blah blah. Much of it is pretty laughable in retrospect, particularly the parts about how crooked politicians were becoming fewer and further between. Uh huh. Talk to Woodward and Bernstein about that one. The movie takes the moralizing even further, which was probably the work of the Hays Office.
Director Doug Hughes keeps the proceedings going at a decent clip, although the day I saw the show, the supporting cast (i.e. anyone who wasn't Nina Arianda), seemed to be working a bit too hard to claim some of Arianda's well-earned audience response for their own. Particularly guilty in this respect were Patricia Hodges as Mrs. Hedges, the senator's wife, and Tony nominee Michael McGrath (Spamalot) as Eddie Brock, both of whom seemed to have crafted their performances from watching Looney Tunes DVDs. Jim Belushi at first seemed to be doing a pretty decent job as Harry, but he too eventually succumbed to sitcom shtick. A one point in the third act, Belushi actually executed a quadruple take. Hey, ten points for difficulty, but zero points for style.
Fortunately, the play mostly revolves around Billie and her relationship with Paul Verrall, her tutor/love interest. Robert Sean Leonard demonstrates here why he's not only been on Broadway twelve times since his debut in the mid '80s, but also carved out quite a career for himself out west in TV and movies. He's good. Really good. Verrall's not a very flashy role, and Leonard could have mugged up a storm to compete with Arianda, as his fellow cast members did. But he chooses instead to underplay everything and invite the audience in without feeling the need to push everything out. That's a true professional, and this production could have used a few more.