The civics lessons taking center stage in Washington theater now include the die-hard primer “Born Yesterday,” a finger-wagging 1946 comedy that ought to be a relic but is a timely, full-out brawl at Ford’s Theatre. The Capitol dome looms in the background as the play’s thuggish, breathtakingly ignorant businessman comes to Washington, throws his weight around and bullies his longtime girlfriend, who gradually finds her voice.
“Born Yesterday” is Garson Kanin’s poison dart aimed at a lazy American public — “A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in,” declares the show’s hero, the bespectacled journalist Paul Verrall — and at fat-cat special interests. Harry Brock is a multimillionaire junk man and raging egotist who has come to rig Congress in favor of his “free market” angles. Brock, played to the gangster hilt by Edward Gero, doesn’t care how things are done in official Washington. Instead, he bellows about his success and expects everyone to jump each time he snaps his fingers.
Of course that goes for Billie Dawn, the ex-showgirl who bubbles along on Brock’s arm without a care in her head until Brock hires Verrall to smarten her up. (This is really about him: He wants to look good to D.C. society’s stuffed shirts.) As Billie, Kimberly Gilbert delivers a daring physical performance: If this production has a revelation, it’s in showing how, and at what cost, sexuality is the only currency this woman has ever known. Gilbert flits like a windup doll through Daniel Lee Conway’s opulent, two-floor hotel room set, her body over-revealed in Kelsey Hunt’s mid-20th-century lingerie. It’s uncomfortable to watch, on purpose. Where it goes is right into the domestic-violence wing of the #MeToo movement.
None of this is to say that Aaron Posner’s big, brash, glistening production makes “Born Yesterday” great again. Though it was a Broadway hit and a popular film (both with Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn), and is always being remade (as a Melanie Griffith movie in 1993) or revived (at Arena Stage in 2005, on Broadway in 1989 and 2011), the play can be as hectoring as Brock. There’s no real suspense in the inevitable poetic justice as Brock gets his comeuppance, with lectures and deflating punchlines on democracy and a free press included.
But Posner and his cast don’t let it sag for a second. Gero, who has spent much of the past three years playing the late justice Antonin Scalia in John Strand’s “The Originalist,” bites into Kanin’s tough-guy talk like it’s American Shakespeare, relishing the slang and the streetwise manner. The formidable scale of Gero’s performance does not daunt Gilbert, whose Billie twirls in nose to nose and yells back with force each time Gero’s Brock shouts.
“He has always lived at the top of his voice,” one of Brock’s entourage remarks.
The cast includes an incisive, cynical Eric Hissom as Brock’s lawyer, speaking reason through a haze of booze, and Todd Scofield in a brief hilarious turn as a dignified but flummoxed senator trying to explain the way of the world to Billie. If there’s modulating to be done, it’s in Cody Nickell’s turn as the intellectual Paul, who always gets the last word. Kanin made Paul smug, and Nickell isn’t softening that.
Posner’s actors are never cowed by period style; instead, they seem unleashed, and their brio goes a long way to selling this war horse. But “Born Yesterday” wasn’t chosen just for its charm and laffs, though it’s still funny as naive Billie hits the books and spouts malapropisms about literacy and government. Beyond that, if you want to hear the term “fascist” in an American context, you’ll hear it applied here. If you want reassurance that every vote counts and free people always need to wake up, this is the place.
Opening-night audiences easily leap to their feet, but that didn’t happen Wednesday. The applause was warm, but the crowd knew what it had seen: an uneasy wrestling match between a period piece and the way we live now. The production updates nothing and yes, it often sounds old. Yet in Gero’s mouthy self-absorption, in Gilbert’s moving transformation and in the nonstop real political theater that so obviously corresponds to the “Born Yesterday” outline, it’s alive — awkward and creaking, but barking back angrily at this disordered moment.
Born Yesterday, by Garson Kanin. Directed by Aaron Posner. Lights, Nancy Schertler; sound design and original music, John Gromada. With Evan Casey, Naomi Jacobson, Matt Dewberry and Jamie Smithson. About 2 1 /2 hours.Through Oct. 21 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Tickets: $25-$64. 202-347-4833 or fords.org