Often critics discuss set design merely as a prelude to cruelty, such as Alexander Woollcott, who once wrote "The scenery of the play was beautiful, but the actors got in front of it." In the instance of Park Square Theatre's production of Born Yesterday, however, discussing the scenery is vital. So let's start out by saying that the set for Born Yesterday is magnificent. Designer Rick Polenek has created the height of sumptuous, if perplexing, glamour. This is important, because playwright Garson Kanin took great pains to describe the hotel room that provides the setting to his play. "It is a masterpiece of offensive good taste," he wrote, and Kanin begins his script by having two characters enviously discussing the room. "Listen," one says, "anybody's got $235 a day to spend on a hotel room, there oughta be a law."
Whether by accident or design, the Park Square Theatre has mounted a play that deals explicitly with the conflict between capitalism and democracy. While this theater is not famous for producing plays intended to épater les bourgeois, thespians have always had a weak spot for this kind of thing, and so it can be assumed that Park Square knew exactly what they were doing in mounting a production in which one of the main character's only functions is to complain about how big money is ruining Washington. In fact, the play's liner notes begin by pointing out that when Born Yesterday opened in 1946, conservative critics labeled it a "Marxist satire."
Ostensibly, this show is a sort of Pygmalion, in which a daffy gal from the wrong side of the tracks blossoms into a marvelous and independent creature as the result of a little education. Here it is Billie Dawn (played with a shrill accent and extraordinary pep by Carolyn Pool), a former chorus girl and current moll to a thug with political ambitions (an oozing J.C. Cutler). Period conservatives had something of a point in their criticisms, even if they overstated them, as the play follows Billie's somewhat exaggerated political awakening. After reading a few books recommended by a dashing young newspaperman (Michael Paul Levin), she comes off as a political firebrand, howling with rage about her boyfriend's abuse of democracy.
But her transformation is precipitated by something more personal than simply a dab of education. As Billie begins to question the world she inhabits, her mug boyfriend responds by using her as a punching bag in order to assert control. She may not have the language or the schooling to express herself fully, but as fists begin to rain down upon her, she knows something is wrong. "When you hit me before," she says, "it was like everything knocked itself together in my head, and it made sense. How some people are always givin' it and some takin'. And it's not fair. So I'm not going to take it anymore."
Twenty years before feminism introduced the idea that the personal is political, playwright Kanin was having his character express exactly that idea in a play that, while very funny, is fundamentally a furious salvo. Peter Moore, the director of this production, does not shy away from such political points either. In fact, he stages grandstanding moments of pure oratory like Frank Capra did in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington--as though they were the most important things in the world.
Because it is so rare to see something so nakedly political staged as popular entertainment nowadays, we forget that politics are essentially dramatic. And as Billie Dawn roars out her invective, denouncing Big Business and demanding justice, the moment is thrilling--and frighteningly contemporary, as the best politics always are.