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Theater Review: Born Yesterday

Brian Wolfe
Kalamazoo Civic Theatre

The comedy Born Yesterday is now playing at the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

Garson Kanin’s script focuses on the menacing efforts of Harry Brock, a strong-arming scrap iron magnate, who seeks to buy influence in Washington, D.C., during the late 1940’s. Although Born Yesterday premiered on Broadway almost 75 years ago, the play has enjoyed several revivals. The script’s enduring popularity is grounded in its relevance to perennial federal scandals, its personification of power-hungry robber barons who try to bribe public officials, and its depiction of individuals who rise to defend our republic.

But it takes more than a favorable current political climate to bring this tale to the stage. A strong cast, excellent non-verbal communication on stage, and technical elements supporting the action, all contribute to the success of the Civic’s production of an American classic.

Credit Brian Wolfe / Kalamazoo Civic Theatre
Kalamazoo Civic Theatre
Katherine Mumma as Billie Dawn in "Born Yesterday"

Going with Harry Brock to the nation’s capital is Billie Dawn, the gum-chewing, high-heeled, ex-chorus girl. On her first entrance, Katherine Mumma, as Billie, appropriately presents a screechy-voiced, socially inept showgirl who willingly trades her favors to Harry for money and the occasional mink coat. Her mantra seems to be, “Hey, it’s a free country.” Under the guidance of reporter Paul Verrall, played by real-life husband Nicholas W. Mumma, her character blossoms into an awakened citizen who spouts Thomas Paine and displays a new awareness of the value of democracy. More importantly, in Act II, Mumma’s Billie manifests a new sense of self-worth in her posture, vocal tone, and her relationship with others that shows the growth of this character.

The show’s first 20 minutes on opening night were greeted by scattered titters from a half-full house rather than belly laughs. Then the production gathered audience interest and began to elicit genuine laughter during the initial scene between Billie and Paul, as a different kind of awakening takes hold for Billie. As she pointedly rises and moves across the sofa to plop down beside love interest Paul, we also feel the temperature in this relationship rising. The couple is locked in a quiet, spontaneous, moment of listening and eye contact that portends a budding romance.

This scene is in stark contrast to the competitive and nearly wordless gin game between Billie and Harry Brock, played by Todd Spratt. Co-directors Lisa Abbott and Atis Kleinbergs have constructed every movement in this key interlude to achieve maximum effect and tell the larger story of the play. Each player’s hand is punctuated with silent takes from Spratt and Mumma, as well as by the ritualized, rhythmic sounds of shuffling, dealing, and counting cards. Body language and facial expressions tell more than spoken words ever could about what’s at stake, the cards held, and the feelings of animosity in a relationship that’s clearly gone sour. As the game continues, the silence between these long-time partners grows deafening. Although Billie says little, it’s clear who’s winning this struggle, and who will carry the day.

Although he’s capable of dominating the action with vocal displays of temper, physical threats, and brute force, Todd Spratt is effective here in showing Harry Brock’s initial realization that his hold on Billie might be slipping away. This scene is a welcome respite from some of the louder exchanges in which Harry exerts his authority over others with shear volume. Spratt rises to the challenge of making a misogynistic bully into a multi-dimensional character whom others onstage and the audience at least tolerate, if not like. When Harry issues a sickening hard slap to Billie’s face, the values of the hard-boiled, post-war era when “Born Yesterday” was created collide with the values of our post hash-tag me-too age. The performers and the production rightly trust the script to pull this shocking moment off.

The key here is the believably pained and tearful reaction from Mumma, as Billie, who can barely see to sign the legal documents Harry thrusts at her. But later, Billie rises again to ensure that poetic, if not legal, justice is done when Harry is put in his rightful place upon her final exit.

Saluting Billie’s victory, Dan Coyne as Ed Devery, Harry’s dogged attorney, delivers an effective concession speech in a resigned and tipsy toast to her independence.

Several other performers contribute much to Abbott and Kleinbergs’ crisply-paced production, including Robert Davidson as Brock’s son and a Hotel Staff with a talent for timing entrances to interrupt or support stage activities as required. Scenic Designer David Kyhn’s handsome and well-appointed hotel suite provides a set with ample playing areas and levels. The nearby Capitol dome, clearly visible in the background through second-story windows above the French doors, suggests that whatever happens in this room is closely connected to what happens on Capitol Hill.

The relevance today’s politics, federal and social, will not be lost on audiences who see the Civic Theatre’s production of “Born Yesterday.”

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