By Russ Bickerstaff
Over the years, Milwaukee Rep resident acting company member Deborah Staples has played sparkling intelligence in a variety of different packages. In Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday she’s playing a bright, hidden intelligence that makes for a fascinating centerpiece to the mid-century political comedy. Staples plays former chorus girl Billie Dawn, a beautiful, young woman following around millionaire blowhard Harry Brock (Steve Pickering). Billie joins Harry and the rest of his entourage in Washington DC, where he is looking to bribe the government into passing laws that will make his hugely profitable business even more profitable overseas.
Harry’s lawyer (Tony DeBruno) has suggested that he be as pleasant and sociable as possible in his meeting with the well-greased Senator Hedges and his wife (Jim Baker and Rose Pickering). In an effort to seem more human than animal, Harry includes Billie on the social meeting. The problem is that, whenever Billie speaks she seems unsophisticated. This prompts Harry to hire a journalist (John Phillips) to educate Billie so that she can be more presentable to the congressmen he’s trying to bribe. Things, of course, get complicated and before long, Billie is falling for the journalist who is clearly falling for her as well. Billie begins to realize what kind of a sociopathic jerk Harry really is.
Staples’ performance as Billie has a great deal of texture and nuance. Even delivering the comedy early in the play as a vacuous, young woman we see that there’s more to her character than the script will allow. In subtle movements and glances, Staples foreshadows deeper elements that will come to the surface later on. When the journalist starts educating Billie, Staples performance goes beyond the “dumb-girl-becomes-smart” cliché to render a character who seems like a complete person. Staples has a great chemistry with Pickering that plays out its most fascinating elements when they aren’t even sharing dialogue. The play features the two alone onstage almost completely silent as they play out a few hands of Gin Rummy. Though it occurs at a relatively natural point in Kanin’s script, it takes a tremendous amount of courage to stop everything onstage while the two principle characters play cards and Pickering and Staples make it work spectacularly. Even if you are completely unfamiliar with the rules, you know exactly what’s going on without them ever having to explain it. It’s amazing execution.
Kanin’s script doesn’t settle easily into one specific genre. The comedy here can be very light and lowbrow while in the midst of a plot that is very deep and serious. It’s a light character comedy that also play out like a political comedy. With relatively simple characters, the story can also be read as a simple political parable. At the close of World War II, Big business (Harry) wants to forge a solid partnership with government (Senator Hedges) to control it and make even more money. When the media (the journalist) educates the people of the United States (Billie) about what is going on, the country is given the option of walking away from it. The ending here isn’t quite perfectly clear. We’re still waiting for a resolution. We all are. VS
The Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s production of Born Yesterday runs now through December 31st at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater in the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex. Tickets range in price and can be purchased by calling the ticket office at 414-224-9490 or online at www.milwaukeerep.com.