Story: In the years following World War II Harry Brock has made a tidy fortune in the junk business. And Harry isn’t too proud to call it what it is. He doesn’t deal in steel or such, he says. He’s ‘a junk dealer,” and a wealthy one at that.
Now the New Jersey native, who owns numerous facilities including a couple of junk yards in Baltimore, is visiting Washington, D.C. to push around his weight and influence a senator or two. He’s brought along his entourage to inhabit a luxury suite in a fancy Washington hotel, where he barks orders at timid assistant managers, barbers, bellhops and whatnot with nary a concern for their feelings.
With Harry are his cousin Eddie, who jumps at Harry’s command; his polished and influential attorney, Ed Devery; and his showgirl-turned-girlfriend Billie Dawn, a feisty young woman who shouts right back at Harry, a man who has “always lived at the top of his voice,” according to Devery.
Even though Harry has plenty of rough edges, he’s concerned that it’s Billie who might not fit in with the politicians Harry is attempting to persuade to favor his business dealings. So, he hires Paul Verrall, a journalist Harry considers harmless, to educate Billie a bit with books and culture and stuff.
What Harry doesn’t count on is that Billie isn’t the dumb eye candy he thinks she is. Billie takes a liking not only to history, literature and knowledge in general but also becomes more curious about the documents which Ed has her sign for Harry’s company on a regular basis. She’s also a tad attracted to Paul as well.
Maybe Billie wasn’t ‘born yesterday’ after all.
Highlights: Garson Kanin’s comedy is as funny and perceptive in the nation’s current political climate as it was when it took Broadway by storm back in 1946, making Judy Holliday a star along the way. The Rep’s season-closing rendition is smartly directed by Pamela Hunt, who ensures that her top-notch cast mines every nugget of the abundant comedy in Kanin’s script.
Other Info: James Morgan’s scenic design is so refined and comfortable-looking that one is tempted to amble up on stage and recline in its splendor. Morgan installs doors on both levels of his set for the comings and goings of characters into bedrooms, hallways and other exits from the palatial sitting room of Suite 67D, as program notes describe it.
Not to be outdone, costume designer Lou Bird smartly attires the cast in the style of the late ‘40s, highlighted by the suits worn by Harry and Devery, the sports coat favored by Paul and the tight-fitting outfits preferred by ex-showgirl Billie. Mary Jo Dondlinger lights everything to complement the action on stage, while Rusty Wandall’s sound design enhances the mood, such as when Billie plays a classical music LP on the phonograph as part of her ‘education.’
While the acting is stellar all the way around, Ruth Pferdehirt is especially enjoyable as the irrepressible Billie. Holliday originated the role on Broadway and won a Best Actress Oscar when she reprised her performance in the 1950 movie version. Pferdehirt, however, finds plenty of humor in the part, stamping it with her own signature.
It’s hilarious, e.g., when she mouths numbers while dealing cards in Billie’s regular gin rummy game with Harry. Her elaborate preparations for the game and her meticulous score keeping, with her head perched close to the table to accommodate her poor vision and refusal to wear glasses, is very funny. Her give and take with Andy Prosky as Harry is reminiscent of many a routine shared by Jackie Gleason and Art Carney as Ralph and Norton on The Honeymooners TV series.
Aaron Bartz is likable and persuasive in the role of writer Paul Verrall, who sees Harry for the blowhard that he is but doesn’t mind taking some of the junk dealer’s money to educate Billie much in the style of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. He has some great lines, too, such as when he’s kissing Billie and she says “What are you doing?,” to which he replies, “If you have to ask then I’m not doing it right.”
Ted Deasy brings polish and panache to the role of Harry’s legal protector, Ed Devery, a former assistant U.S. attorney general who ruefully admits selling his soul and reputation for legal tender. Deasy has the show’s final lines and some of its best, which he delivers with bravado and irony in stellar fashion.
Prosky’s diminutive stature isn’t imposing for the role of Harry, but he brings a pit bull ferocity to the part which conveys Harry’s nasty nature as well as some aspects which actually are somewhat positive albeit ruined by his behavior. He spends much of his time shoeless, which rhymes with clueless, as in his lack of appreciation for Billie’s increasing intellectual abilities.
Randy Donaldson, with his hat beak pushed upward, does well as Harry’s harried cousin Eddie, faithful to the core even when he sees Harry tilting at windmills. Kurt Zischke and Gina Daniels bring upper-class manners and, in his case, low-down corruption to the fore as Senator Norval Hedges and Mrs. Hedges, respectively.
There’s also amusing work by Michelle Hand as Helen, the busybody maid who is never shy with an opinion, and Tom Wethington as the hotel’s beleaguered assistant manager, a nervous sort who asks, “How high?,” when Harry says ‘Jump!” CeCe Hill, Cassandra Lopez, Michael Cassidy Flynn, Maison Kelly and Ryan Lawson-Maeske are fine in roles as bellhops, barber, manicurist and bootblack, respectively.
Seeing a coarse, vulgar upstart in the nation’s capital may be eerily repetitive these days. The Rep’s fluid, crisp and clever presentation of Born Yesterday, however, is a tasty dessert for the troupe’s 2017-18 season.
Play: Born Yesterday
Company: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through April 8
Tickets: $18.50-$89; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.