Jeff Still (Harry Brock), John Patrick Hayden (Paul Verrall), and Alexis Bronkovic (Billie Dawn) in Born Yesterday.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
A change in schedule at the Guthrie Theater gave director John Miller-Stephany some extra time to think about mounting Garson Kanin's comedic look at Washington corruption, Born Yesterday.
The production had originally been slated for the past summer on the Guthrie's thrust stage. Instead, it was moved to the post-Thanksgiving, counterpoint for A Christmas Carol slot on the proscenium.
Though Miller-Stephany had spent quite a bit of time thinking about the production, moving the show from venue to venue wasn't much of a challenge. "We hadn't really gotten that far [in design]," he says. "It's a single set, and the play is very specific about where and when it is."
Taking place shortly after the end of World War II, Born Yesterday centers on Billie Dawn, the longtime girlfriend of Harry Brock, a rough businessman who is making political inroads to help line his pockets.
Amid this morass of corruption comes Paul Verrall, a reporter who gets hired to "smarten" Billie up.
"It's a great play for this time of the year. It is a hilarious comedy that does have some rather important things to say about selflessness," Miller-Stephany says.
It even gets into the spirit during the second half of the show, which is set around the holidays, he adds.
Performer wise, "I'm a great believer that in a comedy like this one, you should have actors who understand comedy rather than comedians," Miller-Stephany says. "It should grow out of the specifics of the character rather than a pasted on shtick. I was looking for actors who were strong actors and who understood comic timing."
As Billie Dawn, Alexis Bronkovic has the specter of Judy Holliday's Academy-Award-winning performance in the 1950 film version. "I wanted someone who has a sort of sex appeal and adorability. The audience has to root for her. She has to have the ability to draw people in and be convincingly ex-chorus girl," says Miller-Stephany. "Everything [Bronkovic] does is incredibly honest. She does not do a Judy Holliday impression. It is all incredibly honest and sincere."
That's a real contrast to the gruff, corrupt and abusive Brock, who is brought to life by Jeff Still at the Guthrie. "He is described as 'gross.' He is someone who is familiar with organized crime and is a thug," Miller-Stephany says.
"Sometimes, you can cast strongly against type. This is not one of those plays where you want to do that. I think you would be making it very hard for yourself not to pay attention to Kanin's clear descriptions. It would be foolhardy to do some sort of concept casting or production. I don't think it would get you very far," he adds. "You have to trust the material. You shouldn't do the play unless you trust the author."
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