Political corruption is hardly a recent development, as playwright Garson Kanin reminds us in his 1946 play, Born Yesterday. Set in a posh, post-World War II hotel, the story is something of a cross between Pygmalion and "The Sopranos."
TheatreWorks' current production takes us back to mid-1940s Washington, D.C., where Harry Brock (played by the brutish Thomas Borrillo) and his girlfriend, Billie Dawn (Carley Cornelius at her sassiest), have camped out at a high-end hotel.
Brock's lawyer, a perfect role for actor Joel Leffert, sets up a meeting so Brock can bully a senator (Michael Augenstein) into some favorable legislation.
Brock is conflicted about Billie: Despite her obvious appeal, he considers her crude, slow and a social liability. To balance his own bullying, he hires a mentor to inject some culture into her coarse demeanor.
If that storyline seems familiar, it's because not much has changed in D.C.
Borrillo's Brock is not a likable guy. He's a junkyard thug and proud of it. Borrillo is strongest when he erupts in anger (and that's rather often). No one in the room is safe, be it a butler or a senator — Borrillo gets in the face of anyone who annoys him. The fear is real: Borrillo is a scary guy when he gets angry.
Cornelius, for her part, crackles as she transforms from a willfully ignorant to self-educated and strong woman.
In a telling scene, Billie and Brock sit down to a game of Gin Rummy. Brock is a big, successful and domineering guy, and he loses every hand to Billie. Cornelius whups him with a twinkle in her eye, rubbing it into his fragile male ego. Cornelius is marvelous as a dumb blonde but even better as a woman with the courage to take back her life.
Michael Gonring, as reporter Paul Vaerrall, probes and pokes Brock for information that would expose his corruption. That, in itself, is sufficient to distinguish Vaerrall as the most likable of Kanin's characters.
But it is as Billie's tutor that Gonring shines. As he moves from her mentor to her suitor, he is a beacon of reason and integrity in a room full of rogues.
David Barber's scenic design is stunning. One immediately appreciates the simplicity and the beauty of his exclusive bi-level hotel suite set.
Director Geoffrey Kent dresses his stage hands as hotel staff, moving props and furniture in costume. And he has sprinkled subtle magic into his characters. Cornelius doesn't just deliver her lines; Kent has her embellish them with eye rolls, raised eyebrows and piercing glances.
Any flaws here seem baked into the script. We can see where the story is going long before we get there. Born Yesterday was ahead of its time, empowering a woman and valuing education, but it missed the target on corruption. We now live in a world where bribery has effectively been redefined as "free speech." Corporate interests now trump the public interest.
Our idealism has been seasoned with justifiable cynicism, putting Born Yesterday's happy ending at odds with our stark reality.