Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday has not aged well. Originally produced in 1946, the comedy has all the political fervor of the victors in the immediate afterglow of World War II. Democracy will rule the world, corruption is on the way out. Defeated fascists are everywhere, but communism might not be such a bad idea after all. The closing civics lesson about our changing world weighs a ton.
Still, Vagabond Players has come up with a remarkably stylish production of this political satire. The handsome scenic design (Roy Steinman, Maurice Conn), a one-set posh Washington hotel apartment, sets the high professional standard for the production from the beginning. The plot revolves around a triangle of characters caught in a comedy of political corruption and redemption. Billie Dawn (Anne Shoemaker) is the mistress of a corrupt businessman, Harry Brock (Steven Shriner). A violent thug lobbying venal politicians, Brock uses Billie as a dummy partner in his seamy deals. She just has to sign on the dotted line. Matters are complicated when a progressive journalist, Paul Verall (Torberg Tonnessen), is hired by Brock to give Billie some cultural seasoning. (Her appearances on the Washington social circuit so far have been an embarrassment.) In a bit of Pygmalion-like metamorphosis, Paul transforms Billie into an erudite defender of the American Constitution. She also ends up his wife and they bring down Harry's corrupt empire. George Bernard Shaw need not fear the competition. Billie's sudden change from an ignoramus (who has no idea what the Supreme Court is) to a textual critic of Tom Paine defies belief. The improbable romance between Billie and Paul also strains belief.
The casting of the play is excellent. As Billie, Shoemaker delivers a dazzling performance. Her voice, posture, and movements perfectly embody the ditzy mistress who slowly awakens to the corrupt scheme of which she is an unwitting part. She makes her transformation into a crusading citizen as convincing as this implausible transformation could be. Tonnessen's Paul captures all the earnestness of the reform-minded journalist, although there is little chemistry in his romance with Billie. Shriner brings out the violence and egotism of Brock, but the occasional declarations of love for Billie fall hollow. As fine as the lead performances are, the play is stolen by Carol Conley Evans as Helen, the perky maid with acerbic political commentary on the goings-on in the apartment and with perfect comic timing.
Steve Goldklang's direction effectively brings out the comedy of the piece. Billie's sentimental education at the hands of Paul has many hilarious moments. The director manages to bring out all the charm in a rather heavyweight political pamphlet.