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Born to Lose

Towson Production of Comedy Chestnut Is No Holiday

Shannon Wollman and Robert Riggs in the Maryland Arts Festival production of Born Yesterday

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 7/18/2001

Born Yesterday

Garson Kanin

The Maryland Arts Festival's production of Born Yesterday has a fabulous set. The art-deco penthouse is not only filled with excellent period details but also sports repeating motifs and beautiful accent pieces. And yet, in the words of the late theater critic and Algonquin Roundtable curmudgeon Alexander Woolcott, "The scenery was beautiful, but the actors got in front of it." Actually, the actors themselves aren't really the problem in Born Yesterday; more specifically, it's their lack of cohesion as an ensemble, slow pacing, and a painfully clichéd script that mar scenic designer Thom Bumblauskas' handiwork.

In Garson Kanin's 1946 play, roughneck millionaire Harry Brock comes to Washington, D.C., to grease a few palms and get legislation passed that will help his scrap-metal business. He brings along his drunken but shrewd lawyer, Ed Devery; his loyal yes-man and cousin, Eddie; and his paramour, ex-chorus girl Billie Dawn. Harry, who isn't much of a smooth talker himself, is afraid that Billie will embarrass him in front of the bigwigs he's trying to influence, so he hires journalist Paul Verrall to tutor her. But Paul doesn't stop at teaching Bille just enough to pass in polite society; he educates he, and she turns out to be an apt pupil. And, of course, sparks start to fly between the unlikely pair.

The cast members generally give capable performances but lack the chemistry necessary to pull off this ensemble piece. Shannon Wollman plays Billie with a Betty Boop voice--or rather, a Judy Holliday voice, in homage to Holliday's definitive, Oscar-winning turn in the 1950 film version--but not much else. Likewise, Robert Riggs' Harry leans heavily on a pop-culture archetype: His character is essentially a wealthy Ralph Kramden, without any of that character's emotional complexity. Dennis Wood smirks and preaches his way through his role as Paul. Dave Guy gives a charismatic, nuanced performance as Ed Devery, but you wouldn't know Ed was supposed to be drunk if Harry didn't keep saying he was. Joseph Riley, who plays Eddie, has a strong stage presence but is given little to do.

If the parts are so-so, the sum is considerably less. For starters, Riggs and Wollman have very little chemistry, so it's unclear what bonds Harry and Billie; he says he loves her, but that affection doesn't come across. Wollman and Wood don't really connect either, which makes it especially jarring when Billie and Paul pair off so quickly (they're kissing by the end of the day they meet). The biggest problem, however, is director John Ford's languid pacing and the two intermissions that stall whatever momentum the play has built. Things don't really get cooking until the last act, when the play switches its Pygmalion plot for a heavy-handed class war/we-the-people diatribe.

Here the actors really crank up the intensity and the pacing crackles, but the stentorian dialogue undercuts their efforts. When Paul spouts lines like, "When you live in Washington, it's enough to break your heart. You see a perfect piece of machinery--the democratic structure--and somebody's always tampering with it and trying to make it hit the jackpot," you wouldn't be surprised if he started waving an American flag and humming the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

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