Sometimes you get lucky with late-night insomnia, and you stumble upon a charming old black-and-white movie on TV, full of funny setups, exaggerated characters and improbable plot lines. There’s something so comforting and quaint about the 1940s’ long dressing gowns, the elegant furniture, the swirling cocktail glasses, the silly dialogue and the old-fashioned battle of the sexes.
That’s just what River Stage’s season opener, Born Yesterday, feels like: a nostalgic trip through a classic movie. No wonder, since playwright Garson Kanin’s political satire first opened onstage in 1946 and was adapted into a 1950 film that won Judy Holliday an Oscar.
It’s funny that Sacramento stages don’t produce more political satire, considering that this is an industry town. It’s fun to watch the cigar-chomping, backroom wheeler-dealer stereotypes of Born Yesterday, knowing there are real-life cigar-chomping dealmakers just miles away.
But to characterize Born Yesterday as simply a wry look at politics is to miss the central character of the play, the irrepressible Billie Dawn, played with screwball finesse by the talented Christine Nicholson. After all, it’s Nicholson’s Miss Dawn, the ditsy paramour of junk dealer Harry Brock (the always-on- the-mark Loren Taylor), who one-ups Washington’s politicians, power brokers and lawyers.
Brock, who came up through the scrap-iron business, is a boisterous bully used to intimidation. He doesn’t quite know how to negotiate Washington, D.C., with its surface refinement, subtle sleaze and low-key bribery of senators. He calls it “a city of few secrets and much chat,” and he tries his best to negotiate nicely, while burdened by his quick temper and uncouth manners.
Brock recognizes very quickly that his ex-chorus gal Billie, with her Fran Drescher voice and floozy dresses, will not be an asset. So he hires journalist Paul Verrall (Floyd Harden) to “culture-fy” Billie. As quick as you can say “Pygmalion,” Billie begins learning, reading and, most importantly, questioning her world. Nicholson brings a weary sass to Billie Dawn and plays her less as a dumb blonde than as an uneducated, quick-minded street survivor—which adds pathos to the part.
And just like the movies, the fun of this production is also in its eye for detail. There are glamorous costumes, elegant sets and props, and period music—all pulled together under the tight direction of Michael Stevenson.