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THEATER REVIEW

Revival shows naivete never looked so good

October 25, 2005|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

Harry Brock has bought himself a senator, and he's come to Washington to oversee his investment. So it seems perversely appropriate that the Capitol dome is perfectly framed by the main window of Harry's hotel suite, like a target in his sights.

Sly details abound in a revival of the 1946 comedy "Born Yesterday" at South Coast Repertory, all part of the fine fun that director Warner Shook and his compatriots have cooked up.

Garson Kanin's play involves screwball elements that may not seem entirely logical, but the story, in a broader sense, presents a timeless -- not to mention hilarious -- depiction of how America really works.

Harry (Richard Ziman), a New Jersey mug who "ran a little junkyard into 50 million bucks," regrets having brought his unschooled, ex-chorus girl of a girlfriend with him to D.C. as soon as he observes her awkwardness around the back-pocket senator and the senator's wife (Hal Landon Jr. and Jane Macfie). Instead of sending Billie home, however, Harry decides to have a bit of refinement schooled into her. For this, he turns to the smart, well-mannered reporter (Paul Morgan Stetler) who's been tailing him, who in turn agrees because he's secretly smitten with Billie.

It's easy to see why Billie (Jennifer Lyon, in the role famously originated by Judy Holliday) might tempt the otherwise ethically unassailable reporter. Sure, her floozy-ish past reveals itself in every word and gesture, yet something about her remains pure and incorruptible. Besides, she's a looker. With her China-doll face, bright bow lips and blond curls piled atop her head, Lyon looks a lot like Holliday, while her hip wags and head tosses are more Marilyn Monroe. Who could resist?

Wearing glasses and dressed in simple, unassuming suits, Stetler's reporter, Paul Verrall, projects the genuineness and nerdy, offbeat handsomeness of someone like Jimmy Stewart. He's the story's moral center, reprimanding Harry's cavalier capitalism with such statements as: "You've got damn near all the oil and the lumber and the steel and coal and aluminum. What do you want now -- all the people? All the laws?"

Coming so shortly after World War II, the play clearly meant to posit Harry as the sort of thug who could rise to power in any world government. Yet Ziman makes him likable. His face registers genuine wonder when people don't want to play politics his way. And when it comes to Billie, Harry is a lovesick dope.

Every performance contains the same fine detail. As the lawyer who finds loopholes and shelters for Harry, Richard Doyle is a man being eaten from inside, his usual poker face beginning to crumple in dismay and distaste.

Still, it's Lyon as Billie who really sells this show. After the senator has been tongue-lashed by Harry, she says to the bruised politician: "The way it looks to me -- if he pushes you around, it's like he's pushing a few million people around." You smile as you think: Out of the mouths of babes.

And hotcha-hotcha, what a babe.

*

`Born Yesterday'

Where: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Nov. 20

Price: $28 to $58

Contact: (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

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