The joke’s on you
Junk tyrant gets schooled by a ‘dumb broad’ and a four-eyed pencil-pusher in Born Yesterday
Nobody’s born smart. In fact, the dumbest creature on earth is a baby. At least that’s what Garson Kanin says in his romantic comedy Born Yesterday. The play gives an intelligent nudge to people who allow themselves to be ignorant of the government and each other, simply because they are satisfied.
Born Yesterday is the second play this summer performed by Chico State’s Court Theatre, now in its 39th season. The play warns Americans to keep an eye on polititicians so shady CEOs can’t take over the government and illegally import limited resources from overseas.
Born Yesterday takes place just after the war—World War II, that is—when a crooked tycoon moves to Washington, D.C., to buy himself a congressman. Harry Brock, who claims he’s “just a junk man,” uses intimidation and violence to get what he wants. In short, he is a tyrant who gets his kicks from bullying around his mistress, his lawyer, U.S. senators and anyone else within shouting range.
Set in a plush hotel room, Born Yesterday is performed with the stage in the middle and the audience sitting around (the worst seats are behind the couch).
When Harry (played by Kevin Muster) Brock first arrives in D.C., he is interviewed by journalist Paul Verrall (Davis Carlson), a morally upright character who is trying to expose Harry’s shady deals. Harry brushes Paul off and sets about wooing his senator. His first attempts are bumbled by his mistress, Billie Dawn (Paige Patterson), who is the stereotypical “dumb broad.” Harry then hires Paul to try to make Billie more intelligent.
The morals of the play are idealistic and downright preachy at times, but the real magic is in the characters.
Harry is a volcanic force of destruction who dominates every scene he’s in. Muster looks like a young, Godfather II-era Robert DeNiro—sans the mole—with greased-back hair and a beer belly held up by pin stripes and suspenders. Harry is the kind of guy who never met a door he didn’t slam.
It would be hard to match Harry’s volatile presence, but by the end of the first act, it is obvious that he has found an equal counterpart in his mistress, Billie. She is a smoother version of Harry as she walks on stage like a ginger snap in a bright yellow suit. Billie moves like a woman who is used to being pushed around but isn’t afraid to push back.
Their volatile chemistry shows both in their subtle intonations and their spectacular fights. Their interactions are hilarious even in their darkest moments. At one point, Billie and Harry sit down to play a game of gin before bed. The card game, despite the fact that it is played in near silence, had the audience howling from laughter with just the way they shuffled the cards.
Add the straight-edge Paul and you have a hilarious love triangle set to explode like a warehouse filled with dynamite. Carlson doesn’t quite match Muster or Patterson’s charisma on stage, but he acts as a perfect straight man. For their first lesson, Billie shows up in a silk negligee. Poor Paul, who is about as sexy as a Dilbert cartoon with his comb-over and thick glasses, looks flustered when he realizes he is alone in a room with a tigress.
Every person in the cast is interesting to watch right down to Harry’s fidgety cousin, Eddie Brock (Jimmy Robertson), who works as Harry’s toady. Even though Eddie is only a supporting character, he adds vibrancy because he’s constantly moving: adjusting his hat, mumbling to himself and tidying up after “boss” Harry. A particular highlight was when Eddie started sipping whiskey at the same time he was chewing his gum—the grimace was quite genuine. He should know better than to mix spearemint with Jack Daniels; it’s not like he was born yesterday.