Damon Runyon meets “Pygmalion” in Garson Kanin’s ever-sturdy 1946 comedy “Born Yesterday,” on the boards at CRT through this Saturday. It’s a much better version of Kanin’s play than Disney’s dismal 1993 film version, starring John Goodman and Melanie Griffith. It’s one of those time-travel comedies that take the audience back to a faster-talking time, a time when people had moxie and, yes, talked really fast.
The setting is 1946, in the best hotel suite in Washington, D.C. The suite is currently occupied by self-made junk king Harry Brock (Bill Coughlin), his mistress Billie Dawn (Briana Gantsweg) and his entourage, which includes right-hand man Eddie Brock (Michael Antico) and boozy politician Ed Devery (Patrick White). Harry Brock has come to conquer the political world and consolidate his power so he can do whatever he wants. Billie has been signing papers she doesn’t understand, and so Harry decides she needs some education, and so he hires local reporter Paul Verrall (Woody Minshew) to tutor Billie in the ways of the world.
This is one ensemble that has what I like to call “TCM appeal.” That means that all the performers dip back to the more presentational, oversized performances of the great 1930s and ‘40s, before Brando and the Method, when actors had the kind of bigger-than-life characteristics that could be parodied by impressionists. For instance, Steven Bidwell and Nancy Kane are absolutely spot-on as a stuffy senator and his stuffy wife. Bidwell looks like Wally Cox right down to his dowdy glasses, and Kane clearly knows that she’s there to play a variation on Marx Brothers foil Margaret Dumont.
Coughlin as Brock bellows and blusters, but he’s not the imposing presence that actors like Broderick Crawford and John Goodman have brought to the role. Antico, wearing one of those odd mid-century jackets and hats, seems to have stepped out of a Preston Sturges movie, and White’s smarmy, slightly desperate character is a real scene-stealer; it was a pleasure seeing him after his turn last season in CRT’s “Our Town.”
All the craziness that ensues revolves around Billie Dawn, one of those plum comic roles that can go for cartoon effect. Briana Gantsweg certainly sounds like a Looney Tune. Her epic squawk owes a lot to original star Judy Holliday, but Gantsweg, perfectly turned out in one amazing outfit after another, certainly makes the role her own. Whether she’s picking jelly beans out of a dish to play a round of bowling, or taking Harry to the cleaners during a nearly silent battle of gin rummy, Gantsweg makes the rest of the world respond to her deliberate, oddball rhythms.
“Born Yesterday,” written by Garson Kanin. Directed by Mark Reynolds, scenic design by Jeremy Hollis, costume design by Orli Nativ. At Cortland Repertory Theatre through August 10.