Born Yesterday by Garson Kanin

Produced by San Francisco Playhouse

By: - Feb 06, 2018

The prescience of some literary works unnerves. Prior to the most recent national elections, Berkeley Rep produced a stage adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. A presidential candidate defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt by promoting fascist-like themes of fear, a return to traditional values, and economic and social “reforms.” The victor then imposes tyranny and a cult of the personality. Does this sound life-like enough to be scary? Sadly, one of the knocks on this play by some critics and other rubes was that it was unrealistic because, they argued, it can’t happen here.

Now, San Francisco Playhouse dredges up another classic from the mothballs, Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday from 1946. As recently as three years ago, audiences would have appreciated this dark-edged comedy without any particular resonance to current affairs. The comic element would dominate the social commentary. Today, spectators who look for parallels to contemporary life from older works will have the eerie sense of viewing an ominous prequel to Lewis’s perceptive novel.

Audiences will possibly find many behaviors in Born Yesterday less acceptable and more abhorrent than in earlier times. But along the way, they will be mightily entertained by a powerful production. And for those of us with a lot of miles on our shoes who wonder how a stage show can compete with the great 1950 movie cast of Judy Holliday, Broderick Crawford, and William Holden, just sit back and enjoy the performances.

Harry Brock is an exceedingly successful junk man, and (rightfully) proud of it. An owner of a slew of junk yards and a trader in scrap, he already has money to burn, but it’s time to up his game. Wanting to corner the scrap metal market from post-WWII Europe, he ensconces himself and his entourage in a Washington, D.C. hotel suite in order to pull the right strings and line the right pockets. What he seeks is unfettered access and ability to operate without any regulation.

Gruff and overbearing Harry is played by Michael Torres who suffered some opening night glitches, but not enough to undermine his sterling characterization of this crass and classless individual. Torres lords over his prey and shouts until his face flushes and veins pop. Harry is the kind of man who has no friends. He wants to be owed favors but not to receive them. He wants to be feared and sees every interaction as contest to be won or lost, and Harry doesn’t lose. His own cynical words reflect his outlook – “You can’t hurt me. You can’t help me.” as well as the prosaic “It’s a dog eat dog world.”

Although his own ignorance and barnyard manners are palpable, Harry is embarrassed by his live-in, trophy girlfriend’s lack of polish for meeting and greeting politicos. The much younger Billie is a former chorus girl with working class speech and an incredibly grating voice, which her portrayer Millie Brooks nails. She also garners big laughs with gestures as well as words as she prances around the stage. With time on her hands, Billie at least has a willingness for self-improvement under the right tutelage. So Harry hires a reporter who had interviewed him, but he may come to regret this Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle arrangement. Jason Kapoor plays the reporter, Paul, with suave understatement and the great confidence to stand his ground against the great intimidator.

Playwright Kanin not only exposes the sausage making of behind-the-scenes politics but also reveals an issue that was more personal and less societal in his day than it is now – spousal or sexual abuse. Some sequences that may have seemed common, if not condoned, in that day, will impact audiences more acutely today.

This production works in all respects. Under Susi Damilano’s direction the more socially significant aspects of the play dominate. Harry’s flawed character takes center stage over Billie’s lighter and humorous delayed coming of age. Jacquelyn Scott’s two-story hotel penthouse staging is stunning in appearance, and the stairway to the upper floor even deserves credit as a minor character, effecting pace and character revelation as players tread the flight. The quality of the acting is consistently good throughout the ensemble. In all, Born Yesterday is an affecting and provocative theater offering that seems disturbingly current and reflective of real people we know.

Born Yesterday by Garson Kanin is produced by San Francisco Playhouse and plays on its stage at 450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA through March 10, 2018.

 Posted courtesy of For All Events.