I was warned. Heading into a Sunday matinee of Born Yesterday, the revival of Garson Kanin’s 1946 farce about corruption and dumb blondes in Washington D.C., I remembered the verdict of several theatergoers I trust: Love Nina Arianda; loathe the rest.
I tried not to let my friends’ judgments seep into my brain as I watched the acts unfold (and unfold, and unfold…the two and a half hours felt dipped in syrup), but they were, unfortunately, correct. In this revival of the play, Arianda plays dingbat sexpot Billie Dawn, and she’s one magnetic creampuff up there, well-deserving of her several awards and nominations (Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle) and critical coronation as Broadway’s “New Queen of Comedy.” The other actors merely lope alongside her; Jim Belushi confuses bellicose yelling for humor, and Robert Sean Leonard (who any woman of my generation wants to love if possible) seemed to be sleepwalking his way through the show. To be sure, it’s can’t be easy to play the self-righteous straight man to Arianda’s cooey bombshell (or to be caught in close-range with Belushi’s booming line reads), but you can read the frustration and quiet resentment on Leonard’s face each time he enters the set.
More than anything, all three of the main players on stage looked like the show had taken them captive: Belushi and Leonard were trapped in a play that doesn’t play to either of their strengths, and Arianda is trapped with Belushi and Leonard in a play that allows her to flex her comedic muscles but doesn’t provide her with any real friction to push up against. It’s the kind of mismatch that you don’t often see at the Broadway level, but one that can leave an audience feeling vaguely queasy.
When an actor outshines his or her material, it can sometimes be a great thing. Not all words written for the stage are perfect, and it’s often easier for a great actor to appear in a mediocre play and make it work than for subpar actors to do justice to stellar writing. Especially in the field of revivals (especially the madcap, mid-century works), the audience can expect to find the words sounding tinny and outdated, and it’s up to the actors to modernize them the best they can.
In the case of Born Yesterday, however, Arianda’s attempt to carry the show on her back doesn’t just outshine the script; it outpaces it. Arianda, a relatively new face in New York (this is her first Broadway outing) made a name for herself last year in Venus and Fur at Classic Stage Company, playing the sultry actress Vanda, who arrives on stage in a trenchcoat with bondage-wear underneath. She is aggressive, feline, unstoppable. Arianda oozed through that play and out its edges. For Born Yesterday, it’s as though she’s poured back into the mold of a lesser seductress. Not that Arianda can’t play Billie Dawn — she can and will play a great many roles — it’s that she’s too smart to play so dumb. It is only when the character reaches a mini-enlightenment at the end of play that Arianda seems even slightly challenged by the task at hand.
It’s not the play’s fault. Billie Dawn is one of the great ditzes written for the stage — the 29-year-old mistress of Eddie Brock (Belushi), a junkyard magnate who has come to Washington to bribe a senator. Brock wants his playmate to seem smarter when talking to important people, so he enlists a journalist, Paul Verrall (Leonard) to educate her about books and the news, and as one might predict, she falls in love with her tutor as she wisens up. If some actresses dream of a chance to portray the powerful intelligence of Hedda Gabler, others fantasize about one day getting to wear mink slippers and swan around the confectionary set in Born Yesterday, pretending to not understand the slightest thing about how the world works outside of how to wear a push-up bra. Melanie Griffith was perfect at this in the most recent film version.
It’s Pygmalion, it’s Pretty Woman — and to carry off these plotlines, the Doolittle role needs to be filled by a woman who seems just as content as a sapling before she realizes she can sprout into something bigger. Arianda giddily laughs her way through her daftest lines (all of Act 1), but she doesn’t convincingly embody Billie until the character starts to feel the power of knowledge. It’s clear that she wants Billie to catch up to her, so she laps her, undermining the play’s most endearing arc — the awakening of a loveable dimwit.