IN A SMASHING BROADWAY DEBUT NINA ARIANDA TAKES POSSESSION OF ONE OF THE THEATRE'S MOST ENDEARING CHARACTERS
By HENRY EDWARDS
In 1946, Judy Holliday's portrayal of "breathtakingly beautiful, breathtakingly simple" ex-chorus girl Billie Dawn in Garson Kanin’s “Born Yesterday” earned the then unknown actress an enduring place in theater history. (That Holliday had learned the role in a mere four days after replacing Jean Arthur made the story of her overnight stardom all the more spectacular.)
Kanin’s comedy went on to rack up 1,642 performances, a stunning achievement for its time or-for that matter-now; "Born Yesterday" remains the seventh longest running play in Broadway history.
And when Holliday immortalized her performance in George Cukor’s 1950 film adaptation, she earned a Best Actress Academy Award, allowing her effortlessly to secure a place in film history to rival her Broadway triumph.
While other great theatrical roles have allowed actresses to shine (Mama Rose in "Gypsy" is the first to come to mind), Billie Dawn has proved a notable exception.
When Madeline Kahn portrayed the character in a 1989 Broadway revival, the results were neglible. And when Melanie Griffith took a shot at it in an updated 1993 film remake, she received a nomination for the Golden Raspberry for Worst Actress of the Year. Mary Martin, Jean Hagen, Sandy Dennis and Bernadette Peters have also portrayed Billie; yet no one seems to remember (or care).
That phenomenon has prompted theater critics and Turner Classic Movies junkies to draw the conclusion that Judy Holliday was destined to own the character now and forever.
Thus the fraternity of aisle sitters felt compelled to draw comparisons between Nina Arianda and Holliday's legendary contribution when newcomer Arianda made her Broadway debut as Billie in the revival of the Main Stem classic that opened officially at the Cort Theatre on April 24.
And what do you think happened? Sixty-five years after Holliday took Broadway by storm, Arianda engendered exactly the same response!
“A downright tour de force,” “an enchanting turn that’s gutsy, hilarious and fully inhabited,” “total comic bliss," “touchingly vibrant” and “the most exciting find of the Broadway season,” heralded the critics.
In summary, Stagegrade.com declared Arianda's gangster's moll-turned-lady approach to the character “a breakout star turn that should make it the Tony favorite to beat.”
Interestingly, the question that provoked the critics probably had no effect on the public. For them, "Born Yesterday" was written so long ago and is so rarely performed it undoubtedly feels like a brand new play. Nor it is likely most playgoers have seen Judy Holliday in the 61-year-old black-and-white movie. That Holliday died in 46 years ago in 1965 additionally creates the possibility that contemporary audiences may have little or no sense of what her performing style was like.
The genius of Doug Hughes’s perfectly orchestrated staging and Arianda's performance reflects the fact that the director and is star have been smart enough to approach the text as if it had never had a previous incarnation. As a result, the play, an unlikely mix of screwball comedy, romance and social satire, brims with freshness.
“Born Yesterday” revolves around uncouth, loud-mouth junkyard tycoon Harry Brock (Jim Belushi) who descends upon Washington D.C. to bribe a Congressman.
Playwright Kanin modeled (and named the character 'Harry') after Columbia Pictures's tyrannical studio boss, profane, vulgar, cruel, rapacious, philandering Harry Cohn.
Brock is accompanied by his mistress, Billie Dawn (Arianda) whose embarrassing behavior interferes with his plans, so he hires handsome, liberal newspaperman Paul Verrall (Robert Shawn Leonard) to soften Billie's rough edges and to make her more presentable to the Washington establishment Needless to say, it does not take long before Billie and Paul fall in love, leading Billie to realize Harry is a two-bit, corrupt crook and to turn the tables on him.
As Brock Belushi screams and talks tough, delivering a funny and ferocious performance as a thug who hypocritically claims he’s a champion of “free enterprise.”
Returning to Broadway after an eight-year absence, Leonard (since 2004 he has played the role of Dr. James Wilson on the TV series “House”) is real and understated as a model citizen who believes wholeheartedly in the democratic process.
The action of the play takes place in John Lee Beatty’s dazzling, over-the-top version of the most expensive hotel suite in the priciest hotel in Washington, D.C.
"Born Yesterday" ultimately mates Shaw’s “Pygmalion” to playwright Kanin's comical take on post-World War II American political corruption.
In a reflection of Kanin’s affection for the films of Frank Capra and Capra’s belief in the basic goodness of the common man, Billie Dawn ultimately proves capable of stopping Harry in his tracks, illustrating the beloved “Capraesque” theme that any one person has the power to facilitate change, including someone as unpolished and badly educated as Billie.
Some complain that “Born Yesterday” descends into a preachy homily to the virtues of liberalism in its last five minutes. Yet in this cynical moment in American history, it frankly is refreshing to experience Kanin's belief in the American political system expressed with so much sincerity and humor.
Doug Hughes has staged a terrific revival of a lovely play. And Nina Arianda just happens to be Broadway’s newest star.