"When you live in Washington, it's enough to break your heart," observes one of the characters in "Born Yesterday," an idealistic writer, who hasn't yet had the ideals beaten out of him. "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."
The observation comes late in the play, which is being expertly revived through Aug. 23 at Olney Theatre by a cast that knows its comic business as well as it knows the business of Washington. There's been so much tampering going on lately that one is tempted to note that "Born Yesterday's" time has come all over again. I suspect it would be more accurate to say that in the 41 years that have elapsed since the play and its star, a then relatively unknown comedian named Judy Holliday, hit pay dirt on Broadway, the tamperers have never let up.
The stakes have grown bigger, that's all. Harry Brock (Ed Kovens), the millionaire junk dealer from New Jersey, just wants to purchase a little legislation that will allow him to corner the European market on the scrap metal left over from World War II. (We sent it over there in the first place, he reasons. Why shouldn't he bring it back home where it belongs?) True, nowadays, the bimbos who, like Billie Dawn (Dorothy Stanley), get mixed up in such chicanery have a lot more on the brain. (Okay, some of them have a lot more on the brain.) If "Born Yesterday" emits a faintly nostalgic aroma, it's only because the grandest suite in the best Washington hotel is said to go for $235 a day and nobody mentions shredders.
Otherwise, Garson Kanin's play remains an adroit piece of craftsmanship that marries its democratic message to the eternally appealing saga of the apparent dimwit who gets smarts and outfoxes the foxes. This kind of turnabout is older than medieval farce, in which the servants outwitted their pompous masters. In the theater, at least, a little learning is a sure-fire thing.
It certainly allows for a knockout performance by Stanley, as the ex-chorine whose brightest utterances were probably the five lines she once spoke in "Anything Goes." As long as Billie keeps her mouth shut, Brock is perfectly willing to keep her in mink coats and fingernail polish, which, given the meticulous attention she pays to her nails, must put an equal strain on his bankroll. The trouble comes when Brock pulls into Washington, decides that Billie needs a little couth and hires that writer, Paul Verrall (Malachy Cleary), as her tutor.
Stanley understands something basic about dumb blonds. It's not that they don't think. They're thinking all the time -- about their lipstick, their figures and the cut of their dressing gowns, which, only if assiduously monitored, expose the right amount of thigh. Their pretty peroxided heads are crammed full of thoughts. What Stanley shows us with considerable flair are new ideas rubbing up against the old ones, engaging in a scuffle and, more often than not, elbowing them aside.
Oh, Billie manages periodically to get her wires crossed. Of course, she knows what a "peninsula" is, she announces with the hauteur of the incipient intellectual. "It's that new medicine." But her befuddlement is an active state, a kind of mental arm wrestling, and she's not about to capitulate until she puts all those sneaky adjectives masquerading as adverbs in their rightful place. Stanley, the thought may occur to you, could be Edith Bunker's niece, the pretty one they always said should go into show business. There's a similar pipsqueak quality to the voice and the same underlying pride that no amount of bullying can extinguish.
Kovens' Brock certainly tries, bringing to the task a lifelong assumption that people can be bought and sold as easily as dented fenders. A rumpled double bed of a man, with long simian arms, a nose that looks to have been broken five times and an adenoidal voice akin to sandpaper in Dolby sound, Kovens makes a grand sloven. If he's funny, he's also just menacing enough to be taken seriously.
Director John Going knows he's dealing with a classic American comedy, but he's not about to coast along on the play's reputation. This production earns its laughs -- and there are many -- by establishing all the characters on a sound psychological footing and granting them their values, however skewed they may be. (Going's staging of the first-act gin game between Brock and Billie is so shrewdly nuanced as to suggest that the scene is more than just an antecedent to "The Gin Game," D.L. Coburn's 1977 Pulitzer Prize-winning play.)
As the intellectual who introduces Billie to ideas and self-respect, Cleary is an engaging Clark Kent by way of the Ivy League, except that when he whips off his glasses he can't see as well as before. Alan Mixton has the rueful self-mockery of the lawyer who gave up his career in government to become Brock's well-paid flunky and won't ever forgive himself. Joseph Daly is properly wishy-washy as the senator on the take, and Beverly Brigham, as his wife, gets amusingly sloshed while trying to keep up Washington small talk and congressional appearances.
Right on key, too, is Jody Wood, who as Brock's henchman is forever trying to anticipate his boss' wishes, forever failing and forever apologizing with a half-smile that's really waiting for the ax to fall.
Set designer James Wolk's handsome hotel suite -- with its view of Capitol Hill -- is the best that the postwar dollar can buy. And costumer Rosemary Pardee-Holz astutely recognizes that money, not taste, is the prime factor governing the duds these characters are sporting. In all, this is the sort of first-rate revival Olney used to deliver with regularity, and it's gratifying to see the turf being reclaimed so professionally.
As for "Born Yesterday," it shows its age only in its fervent endorsement of the notion that "people get wiser, they hear more, they talk more" and when enough of them get wind of double-dealing, the Harry Brocks of the world are out on their keisters. Tell that to Ollie North and his pals.
Born Yesterday, by Garson Kanin. Directed by John Going. Set, James Wolk; costumes, Rosemary Pardee-Holz; lighting, James D. Waring. With Ed Kovens, Alan Mixon, Dorothy Stanley, Malachy Cleary, Beverly Brigham, Joseph Daly, John Elko, Barbara Rappaport, Jody Wood. At Olney Theatre through Aug. 23.