There are very few shows in which the set earns more applause than its top-billed TV stars, but the breezy Broadway revival of the 1946 comedy Born Yesterday is one of them. John Lee Beatty has designed a radiant art deco gem of a hotel suite with gilded fixtures, glimmering onyx woodwork, ruby-red upholstery, and satiny sapphire walls. Topped off by fat swirls of curlicue chalk-white molding, it is — just as playwright Garson Kanin dictated in his stage directions — ”a masterpiece of offensive good taste.” No wonder it trumps Robert Sean Leonard’s entrance. And, a few minutes later, Jim Belushi’s entrance. But after Nina Arianda slinks her way down the center staircase, curtsies clumsily, and storms back up the steps, the set doesn’t seem quite as glossy.
As bubble-headed bottle blonde Billie Dawn — a role that won Judy Holliday an Oscar in 1950 — Arianda is giving a performance that could be called breakout, though breakout somehow seems insufficient. (And if we’re going to get technical, she probably broke in early 2010, playing an actress/dominatrix opposite Wes Bentley in the Off Broadway psychodrama Venus in Fur.) It’s a part any actress would crack some kneecaps for. Billie is Kanin’s brainiac equivalent of the hooker with the heart of gold: She’s the ex?chorus girl mistress to shady millionaire Harry Brock (According to Jim‘s Belushi), who’s just arrived in Washington, D.C., to grease some politicians. Worried that his squeeze ”just don’t fit in,” Brock pays bespectacled New Republic writer Paul Verrall (Tony winner and House regular Leonard) to pull a Pygmalion on Billie. You know, make her talk good. Of course, you can guess what happens. (Billie gets her political consciousness raised — what did you think?)
It’s not just because Arianda shines so brightly that everyone else looks a little dull by comparison. Leonard makes the most of what he’s given: a self-righteous smarty-pants who’s positioned as a love interest yet whose most defining character trait is his eyewear. (Seriously. The spectacles get almost as many mentions as his name.) As Brock’s scotch-swilling lawyer, Ed Devery, Tony-winning actor Frank Wood (Side Man) reverts to a marble-mouthed delivery à la Blake Lively on Gossip Girl. And while Belushi has all the makings of a clueless bully, he always seems just a beat behind; director Doug Hughes, who can do screwball with the best of ’em (The Royal Family), paces Kanin’s nostalgic, unabashedly patriotic comedy quite calculatedly, but Belushi somehow always slows. It. Down. Also, the star never seems comfortable unless he has a cigar in his right hand.
Much time will undoubtedly be spent debating the datedness of Kanin’s play, which he finished during the London Blitz. This production, smartly, takes quite seriously lines such as ”When you steal from the government, you’re stealin’ from yourself, you dumb ox!” and ”The country with its institutions belong to the people who inhabit it!” And Arianda delivers these earnest proclamations with a zing and a perfect gangster’s-moll accent that would make Army man Kanin proud. B
(Tickets: Telecharge.com; 800-432-7250)