When choosing Garson Kanin’s classic Born Yesterday for the 2016-17 season, Asolo Rep artistic director Michael Donald Edwards surely realized how well Kanin’s truly original character of Billie Dawn fit into the American Character theme the theater company has been pursuing for five years. But he could not have known just how timely this play about a highly unorthodox millionaire businessman trying to buy his way into Washington, D.C., would be following the 2016 elections.
That connection makes watching the Asolo’s production of the show more pointed, more relevant, but then Born Yesterday is a play about politics, human nature and the fight to keep democracy alive that will probably never grow old. Fortunately, all of that serious stuff has been expertly wrapped up in a package that entertains at every turn.
Junk man Harry Brock (Norm Boucher) is brash, bullying and used to yelling his demands at top roar. When he first arrives onstage with his flunky Eddie (Jacob Sherburne), beautiful but dim girlfriend Billie (Christina DeCicco) and hard-drinking, self-loathing attorney Ed Devery (Eric Hissom), it’s easy at first just to laugh at his ignorance about how Washington works. (Sound familiar?) After all, Harry has always gotten what he wants by paying for it, and surely that applies to the U.S. senator (Don Walker) he needs to smooth things over for a bill he needs passed.
But as time goes on, Harry doesn’t seem quite so funny. While he can come across as likable when trying to charm reporter Paul Verrall (Christopher Kelly), whom he eventually hires to school Billie to make her “fit in,” nobody’s laughing when his determination to force Billie to sign some business papers turns ugly. Coming to the stage right after the end of World War II, when the United States and other countries had just fought a long battle against fascism, Harry is a reminder that his kind will always need to be stood up to.
But while there’s plenty of food for serious thought in Kanin’s play, it’s also just a delight to watch as Billie, a former showgirl with nary a thought except for fancy clothes and playing gin rummy (that famous game between her and Harry never ceases to amuse), first makes a connection with Paul and eventually becomes obsessed with gathering all the information she can into her pretty little head. DeCicco, with a voice that can go from trembly little girl to raucous and a body that’s perfect for wearing Robert Perdziola’s eye-catching costumes, makes us watch her and root for her every minute. You can see the child within her Billie as she joyfully goes from one discovery to the next and a new world opens up for her.
DeCicco also interacts well with Kelly as Verrall, the bespectacled writer who reaches her in a way no man ever has before. And she and Boucher as Harry have plenty of energy together as they shout their way around Perdziola’s handsome set of an expensive Washington hotel room.
Director Peter Amster has led them, and the rest of the cast, with terrific flair. FSU/Asolo Conservatory student Jacob Sherburne is right on the money as the easily bossed-around Eddie, and Hissom gives his Devery the proper mix of venality, disgust and alcohol. By the time the curtain falls on Kanin’s story, we’ve learned a thing or two along with Billie.
Born Yesterday continues in rotating rep through April 15; for tickets call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.