Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay


Born Yesterday
San Francisco Playhouse
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Jeanie's reviews of Cow Pie Bingo, The Children's Hour and The Dining Room


Millie Brooks and Jason Kapoor
Photo by Jessica Palopoli
From his first moments on stage in San Francisco Playhouse's marvelous production of Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday, it's clear who Harry Brock (Michael Torres) is: an ignorant blowhard bully millionaire whose fortune was built on the backs of people he stepped on, cheated, lied to, and stole from on his way up the economic ladder. He's a junkyard dog. Having made his millions in the refuse business, he snarls and snaps and growls at anyone he doesn't like the smell of, and flaunts his alpha male status with a swagger that belies a deep insecurity. You see, Brock has left his comfortable small pond to swim with the sharks in Washington, DC ("a city of few secrets, and much chat"), where he hopes to manipulate (and bribe) Senator Norval Hedges (Louis Parnell) into amending a few laws in order to allow Brock to run his business without all those pesky regulations.

If you're seeking escape from the seemingly all-Trump-all-the-time news cycle, here's a trigger alert: from his brash, galumphing, uncouth approach to all human interaction, outbursts of temper, assertion of authority based on the size of his bank accounts, to the way he treats his beautiful but seemingly none-too-bright paramour, and throws his (not-insignificant) weight around to abuse all those in his employ, the image of our current President will likely come flashing to mind in little orange supernovae on more than one occasion.

Do not, however, let this keep you from getting yourself down to Union Square, for the pleasures of this rich comic treasure far outweigh the potential stress of being reminded of the peril of fatuous, self-centered louts who rise to positions of power despite deep ignorance and a total lack of a moral compass. And you get a happy ending.

Brock comes to town with a retinue in tow: his cousin (and body man) Eddie (Gabriel Montoya), personal lawyer Ed Devery (the ever-brilliant Anthony Fusco), and his long-time girlfriend, former chorus girl Billie Dawn (Millie Brooks). He's established himself in a giant suite at a DC hotel, with a view up the Mall to the Capitol (a sadly low-res image, with a slightly stretched perspective that stains an otherwise gorgeous two-level set by Jacquelyn Scott) that's setting him back a massive $235 a night (the play was written in 1946—in current dollars, that's $3000+). An off-hand comment from another character that she makes $18 a week subtly raises the very current issue of income inequality, and Devery's advice to Brock to approve an interview with journalist Paul Verrell (Jason Kapoor)—"The thing to do is take him in. Then he doesn't go poking."—offers a whiff of media manipulation.

Brock, of course, is all about manipulation—of all sorts. His prime target, however, is Senator Hedges, and to impress the legislator and his wife (Terry Bamberger), Brock feels the need to give his ditzy blonde Billie a social and intellectual makeover, the better to worm his way into the halls of power. Being quite the vulgarian himself, Brock turns to his new best friend Paul, the writer who has come to interview him.

This is where Born Yesterday really kicks into gear, as we discover chorus girl Billie may not be nearly so low-wattage as she first appears. Once Paul discovers how to spark both her curiosity and her libido, the heat rises rapidly and the play picks up a momentum that doesn't abate until the final curtain.

There is so much to recommend about this production—wonderful performances by Jason Kapoor and Anthony Fusco, Jacquelyn Scott's lovely set (despite the flawed projection), and Abra Berman's bold period costumes—but two efforts deserve special mention: Millie Brooks's stunning performance as Billie Dawn (in the role for which Judy Holliday won an Oscar) and Susi Damilano's expert direction.

Billie Dawn is a character we have seen many, many times: the ditzy blonde floozy who serves as arm candy for a powerful man, often a mobster or gambler. Think Adelaide in Guys and Dolls or Olive in Bullets over Broadway. But Millie Brooks manages to find a way to make the trope something all her own. In an early scene, when she is trying to keep up in a conversation (and has already indicated ignorance of the existence of the Supreme Court), she says the non sequitur "It's a free country" with a dead-eyed desperation that had the audience roaring with laughter. And she only gets better from there, subtly embracing her newly expanded knowledge and worldview while never losing the simple goodness of her character. Given the ease with which an actor could fall into the cliché nature of the dumb blonde role, Brooks deserves all the praise in the world for making this portrayal something unique, personal, and very, very funny.

Director Damilano deserves a pile of kudos herself for establishing a galloping pace while maintaining tight control of the reins. The 2-1/2 hours simply flies by. Her sure hand allows her cast to make the most of every sparkling line in Kanin's powerful, insightful and witty script.

Despite the many laughs, there's a deep and important message here: fight the power. Don't give in to apathy or defeatism in the face of authority. At one point Billie says "I don't care," and the response comes, "Very few people do. That's why he [Brock] may get to run things." At the heart of Born Yesterday is a quandary that has never stopped being vital throughout the history of democracy: "This country will soon have to decide if the people are going to run the government, or the government is going to run the people."

That requires—as Billie learns over the course of the play—curiosity and activism and a respect for verifiable truth. For if we are to prevent a situation where "force and reason change places" because "a world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in" (a line that elicited a terrifying gasp of recognition from the audience), then we all need to be more like Billie Dawn and stand up for what is good and right.

Born Yesterday, through March 10, 2018, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:00pm, Friday-Saturday at 8:00pm, with matinees Saturdays at 3:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. Additional matinee on February 21 at 3:00pm and additional evening performances on February 18 and March 4 at 7:00pm. Tickets are $25-$100, available at www.sfplayhouse.org or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.


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