Playwright Janet Munsil directs a painfully timely American classic at the Roxy.
THERE'S A BITTERSWEET NOSTALGIA evoked by a play like Born Yesterday, the comic morality tale about unlikely heroes interrupting schemes of illicit influence and profiteering in Washington, DC. Garson Kanin’s classic post-war piece is a biting political and social commentary, calling out both the underestimation of women’s intelligence and the corrupting influence of money on politics. The nostalgia comes from the sweet, and now seemingly quaint, notion that underhanded, back-room dealings (much less overt, broad-daylight corruption) could be spoken to, and ultimately thwarted.
For those unfamiliar with the play, smarmy junkyard magnate Harry Brock brings his showgirl mistress Billie Dawn with him to Washington. He frets that her lack of erudition is a liability to his business dealings, so he hires righteous young journalist Paul Verrall to polish and educate his arm-candy. Billie Dawn awakens, and realizes how corrupt Harry is. She then attempts to interfere with his efforts to bribe a Congressman into passing legislation that would make Brock’s business even more profitable. Hilarity ensues, albeit edgy and uncomfortable hilarity.
Blue Bridge Theatre brought esteemed local playwright and director Janet Munsil on board to wrangle their staging of this American chestnut. Of taking on this particular directing gig, a year or so after leaving her longtime post at Intrepid Theatre, she says, “I gravitate toward comedies for sure. It is a comedy; sometimes it’s billed as a ‘screwball comedy.’ Billie Dawn is one of the iconic ‘dumb blonde’-mold chorus girls, who over the course of the play is introduced to education, and is revealed to be a highly intelligent woman. It’s not that her outer trappings are being changed; this is about the opening of her mind. About her empowerment to stand up to the oppressive situation that she finds herself in.”
Seventy years after its original run on Broadway, the play haunts us with its relevance. How have we not come farther in seven decades? Did Blue Bridge Theatre decide to program this piece specifically to highlight the events unfolding in Washington today? “Although it was written in the ’40s, there are certain things in it that really resonate right now,” agrees Munsil, who says it’s a “tragic accident” that the appearance of the show in the theatre’s 2017 lineup is so excruciatingly apropos. “Not just with [Billie Dawn’s] personal story…but the bribing of a congressman, corporate corruption angle, political angle—it’s very timely right now. We don’t have to push on it very hard in the show; it feels like a satire for today.”
Actress Casey Austin will play Billie Dawn, which, Munsil says, is a “very iconic role. In the film, she’s played by Judy Holliday, and it’s the role she was most associated with.” Jacob Richmond plays her “junkman millionaire boyfriend” Harry Brock, and Jonathan Mason, who currently lives in the UK, plays Paul Verrall, the fine young upstanding journalist, who, we can imagine, would bristle mightily if he were ever accused of propagating “fake news.”
Directing at the Roxy Theatre is new for Munsil, who says, “I’ve been really impressed with what they’ve been able to do with sets, considering there isn’t a backstage. They…give an impression of having a lot of space in what is really a tight area.” Born Yesterday set designer Barbara Clarahue and costume designer Graham McGonagle both have experience with the Roxy, making Munsil’s job easier.
As Victoria audiences witness this revival of a vintage play that couldn’t be more current, Munsil imagines that, yes, many theatres worldwide will surely be reviving it too. “It’s so on-the-nose, but this stuff is right there, in the script. It will be fun and entertaining from that perspective. It should be funny and uncomfortable,” she says, “which is my favourite kind of comedy.”
Born Yesterday, at Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre, directed by Janet Munsil. May 30-June 11, The Roxy Theatre, 2657 Quadra Street. Tickets, $20-$47, phone 250-382-3370, online at bluebridgetheatre.ca, or in person at 2657 Quadra Street.
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