Laugh-out-loud funny has invaded the Festival Theatre, entertaining and delighting all comers except those whose unbounded greed and/or willful blindness have wreaked financial havoc on the unsuspecting public at any time during their careers.
In Garson Kanin’s post-WW II tale of influence peddling, junk-tycoon Harry Brock (boisterously done to a tee by Thom Marriott) is pitted against mild-mannered reporter Paul Verrall (Gray Powell’s visage and glasses make him a sure-fire candidate to play Clark Kent should the other Superman ever fly into Niagara-on-the-Lake) as the former tries to become even bigger in Washington, D.C. while the latter attempts cobbling together enough facts to send the ruthless criminal-entrepreneur to jail.
Neither was prepared for the purposely repressed, intellectual capacity of former chorus girl and now Brock’s concubine (unwittingly, courtesy of too-clever-by-half lawyer, Ed Devery—Patrick Galligan brings his special charm to play the affable, scotch-addicted barrister) and majority-owner of the ill-gotten scrap-iron empire, Billie Dawn.
Stop the presses!
In a magnificent mixture of Georgia Engel’s (cross-reference below) dumb-blonde naïveté and Gracie Allen’s timing, Deborah Hay has come up with a characterization for the ages. Whether wondering aloud what a “Supreme Court” might be (with a senator’s wife—Donna Belleville makes the most of her sight gags—sitting in stunned surprise), playing her nightly game of gin with Brock (this scene is destined for the Canadian Comedy Hall of Fame: Marriott’s straight man allows his firecracker colleague to set the audience into hysterics as she counts points with body parts and spits back change with impunity) or discovering the beauty of classical music (“Sibeelius, Op. 47” will never sound the same), Hay almost singlehandedly makes this production the funniest in years and in the same vaunted vein as The President (cross-reference below).
Director Gina Wilkinson has done an exceptional job in keeping the pulse and rhythm of the zany piece moving in concert with the action. The first act flew by so quickly that patrons wondered how minutes could morph to seconds. Thanks to Sue Lepage’s magnificently sumptuous set (a $235/night suite in Washington’s finest hotel), there was ample room and levels to keep the visual humour running neck-and-neck with the lines.
The opening bellboy sequence (Prince Amponsah, with an infectious grin along with the Cirque-du-Soleil skills of Jonathan Widdifield and Craig Pike) was an incredible ballet of bags and hat boxes that immediately set the creative/hilarity bar high and we were seldom disappointed the rest of the way.
Only in parts of Acts II and III did the pace flag a bit, but more due to the playwright’s pontificating than the troupe’s abilities.
The My Fair Lady aspect of the plot arrived when Brock decides Billie is too dumb to meet society, so hires the immediately smitten Verrall to smooth out her rough edges. Wisely, Kanin leaves the transformation to intermission then reveals the results of literature, newspapers and the arts over the remainder of the show.
Lorne Kennedy made an ideal Senator Norval Hedges—happy to be bought for $80,000—yet not stinting to ask for more when his fellow lawmakers slowed the passage of a bill that would see Brock import the “junk” left on European battlefields back to the U.S.—tax and tariff free—and then sell the recycled armaments back to the weapon industry.
With such present-day examples of the Mulroney/Schreiber affair having an encore presentation in the theatre of public opinion, Born Yesterday succeeds mightily as entertainment, but can’t (now or ever as long as the “selfish take advantage of the unselfish”) fulfill the writer’s pipedream that by satirically educating his public about the corruption raging around them (thus eliminating “don’t-care-ism”), tyrants such as Brock will be as rare as unreported envelopes of cash. JWR