a theatre, film & pop culture review
Shaw could never have predicted the world’s fascination with his version of the Pygmalion mythology – his tale has been spun and re-spun far too many times to count. Garson Kanin’s 1946 comedy, Born Yesterday, is just one of the more successful adaptations, with an initial Broadway run of nearly three years and an Academy Award-nominated film (1950) starring Judy Holiday and William Holden and directed by George Cukor. The film director clearly had a thing for the man-who-falls-in-love-with-his-own-creation tale, as he also helmed the most beloved adaptation of all, My Fair Lady (1964).
Born Yesterday beefs up the romance, padding it with politics and sex as it follows self-made junkyard tycoon Harry Brock and his ex-showgirl lady-friend Billie to Washington D.C. Hoping to expand his scrap-metal empire by getting legislation passed that will allow him certain tax exemptions, Harry must coerce a senator (Terry Beaver) and ensure that his brainless bimbo doesn’t embarrass him with her, shall we say, graceless manners. Naturally, this involves tutelage by a handsome young reporter (sensitively played by the charming Robert Sean Leonard).
This should create a damn funny set of circumstances, but in director Doug Hughes‘s current Broadway revival, most of the comedy is cut painfully short by the presence of Jim Belushi as the uncouth crook. Appearing almost uncomfortable on stage (though he’s played Broadway and regionally many times in the past), Belushi is stiff rather than imposing and bellows, rather than acts, practically every line. So out of pace is he with his castmates, it’s as though he’s in a different show than everyone else — a slow, unfunny show. Belushi’s only exceptional moment — besides when Harry retorts that Billie is the “only cheap thing he sees in the room,” and an audience member loudly admonished “Ohh, Jimmy…” (had he only broken the fourth wall in response, he may have endeared himself to me) — is the long, nearly silent gin game. A comic mental showdown between the crook and the chorus girl, Billie hilariously and triumphantly bests him at every hand, and Belushi’s embarrassment and irritation is a physical one, building in tension as the game persists, only to erupt in a full-fledged clownish fury at the end.
While the game is the exception for Belushi, it’s certainly not for his masterful leading lady, Nina Arianda. A recent NYU grad who only last year had her critically hailed off-Broadway debut in David Ives’s Venus in Fur at Classic Stage Company, Arianda is pure comic joy as the giggly blonde bombshell who betters her mind through self-discipline and the careful dedication of her teacher-reporter. Lushly dressed in a flowy satin blouse and bold empire-waist trousers (designed by Catherine Zuber, whose penchant for period costumes can also be seen in this season’s revival of How to Succeed), Arianda commands the stage with her brilliant comedic sensibility: each gutteral giggle and wide-eyed knee-slap elicits the same in us, and her innocence, crassness, joy, confusion, and honesty reveals a layered complexity that exists nowhere else in this production. Whether she’s absentmindedly humming “Anything Goes” to her own pitchy tune, or confidently defining ‘peninsula’ as “that new medicine,” Arianda simply sparkles, giving life to an otherwise serviceable revival.
Arianda’s brilliant, believable, and hilarious progression from dimwitted broad to a beguiling and clever (but still delightfully bawdy) lady is 100% Tony Award-worthy — let’s hope this production stays open long enough to be eligible for such a nomination. But if it doesn’t, to satiate our Pygmalion fixation, I offer up this idea for a new revival of My Fair Lady (the casting of which I pondered whilst Belushi blustered his way through his scenes):
Professor Henry Higgins: John Lithgow
Eliza Doolittle: Laura Benanti
Freddie Ensford-Hill: Matt Cavanaugh
Alfred P. Doolittle: John McMartin
Mrs. Higgins: Mary Louise Wilson
Colonel Pickering: TBD (I’m taking suggestions.)
But if Arianda sings, I’m more than willing to chuck Benanti.