Nina Arianda in Born Yesterday. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: A Broadway show that would have limited appeal if it weren’t for Nina Arianda’s astonishingly alluring performance.
At the risk of sounding irritatingly cliché, I’d like to say “there’s a bright new star shining on Broadway.” To fully understand what I mean, you’ll have to attend a performance of Born Yesterday, the revival of Garson Kanin’s comedy that first showed at the Lyceum Theatre in 1946.
Kanin’s play itself is liable to be hit-or-miss, mostly because audience members these days are all too familiar with this kind of story: New York Tycoon travels to Washington to strike a shady deal involving politicians and corporate mergers. Tycoon stays in a ridiculously lavish hotel with his blonde girlfriend, who is dumb and cute and not properly mannered. Audience sympathizes with girlfriend. Girlfriend gets smart. This is a revival of a show that fit comfortably into a cultural trend in its time and, though it may be entertaining, Born Yesterday is far from fresh. Without some true Broadway vibrancy, this could be the show that makes you wish you saved your money and stayed home, reading Raymond Chandler or watching old Film Noir. But it isn’t.
I hate to belittle the design, direction and the several good performers in this show (because all of those elements certainly contribute to its allure), but the real reason to see Born Yesterday is to watch Nina Arianda perform in her Broadway debut. Arianda (whose slim list of credits include last year's acclaimed off Broadway production of Venus in Fur, and a small role in Woody Allen’s forthcoming film Midnight in Paris) plays the part of Billie Dawn, the cute, dumb, mostly complacent would-be-trophy-wife (if he'd marry her) of millionaire Harry Brock (Jim Belushi). The story relies heavily on Billie winning the sympathy of the audience, but Arianda’s Billie gets much more: almost constant laughter, adoration (I heard several people in the audience whisper to their neighbor “oh, she’s so cute!”), and even that rare stirring of love for a character.
Being a little tired of (and, in all honesty, confused by) these stories of corrupt business deals and political alliances, I found that I could always watch Arianda when I lost interest in the straight-shooting, innuendo-veiled and detailed dialogue (which, in all fairness, is very well written). In an early scene, after being scolded by Harry for wanting to have a drink before some important guests arrive, Billie quietly pours herself a tumbler of vodka that is practically spilling over the brim. As the men talk business, Billie sits silently on the couch, drinking her giant glass of vodka, childishly using both hands, bored with what is going on around her. Whether she’s part of the main action on stage or quietly off to the side, Arianda is constantly quirky and entertaining and, as her character grows into a smarter and stronger person, I found myself rooting for Billie because I genuinely cared for her.
The praise of Arianda could go on and on (Billie’s deliciously squeaky New York accent, the way she shuffles a deck of playing cards, how cute she looks in the reading glasses she feels self-conscious in, etc., etc.) but, as Kathleen Turner’s performance in the recent flop High has proven, one good performance usually isn’t enough to make a good show. With Born Yesterday, the design and other performers are passable, if not exceptional. Belushi makes a good Harry Brock with his Tony Soprano stature and commandingly loud voice. John Lee Beatty’s set is a masterpiece of gaudy lavishness with incredible attention to detail that brings to life the kind of luxury that Harry is able to afford. Catherine Zuber’s costume design embodies the 1940s in a way that is nuanced, rather than over-simplified, and each costume adds to the almost cartoonish archetypes that most of the characters fit into (Millionaire Tycoon, Senator’s Wife, Maid, Belhop, etc.).
Even without Arianda, Born Yesterday could find its audience with tourists and those who are obsessed with booze-drinking, cigarette-smoking, stylishly corrupt mid-20th century culture, popularized by shows like Mad Men. Nina Arianda, however, also deserves the attention of serious theatre-goers and industry scouts on the lookout for fresh talent and impeccable performances. She is truly a star and it is passionate performers like her that make modern Broadway feel less like a money-making machine. The LED glow of Times Square felt a little warmer as I walked out of the Cort Theatre that night.
(Born Yesterday plays at the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, through July 31, 2011. Performances are Tuesdays at 7PM, Wednesdays at 2PM and 8PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM, and Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are $26-$121 and can be purchased by visiting telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6262 or 800.432.7780. For more show information visit bornyesterdayonbroadway.com.)