As San Francisco Playhouse Artistic Director Bill English explains in the program for the company’s current production of Garson Kanin’s 1946 play “Born Yesterday” (also a 1950 film starring Judy Holliday), the playwright penned earlier drafts, apparently lost to the mists of time, which focused more clearly on the political themes that concerned him.
But, writes English ruefully, those themes “ended up being submerged under the glitzy wrappings of romantic comedy,” as required for a Broadway show.
It’s true that the low-key attraction between quintessential “dumb blonde” Billie (who’s not so dumb at all) and Paul is not especially convincing, either in the writing or in the staging of this otherwise excellent production.
But Kanin’s look at corrupt Washington politics, at attitudes toward women and at the ruthless ambition of an amoral, power-mad and greedy rage-aholic feels of-the-moment.
The vulgar, up-by-his-bootstraps millionaire from New Jersey Harry Brock (played with uncompromising brutishness by the wonderful Michael Torres) blows into D.C. to make an underhanded deal with a willing senator (Louis Parnell, all unctuous bonhomie).
With Brock is his screechy-voiced and equally uncouth mistress, Billie (Millie Brooks), who’s his quiescent “silent partner” in his business shenanigans; his cowering assistant (a nervous, eager-to- please Gabriel Montoya); and his alcoholic schlemiel of a sleazy lawyer (the always impressive Anthony Fusco).
To give Billie an Eliza Doolittle makeover to impress Washington society, Brock hires Paul, a journalist who happens to be on hand to interview him (a pitch-perfect, unflappable Jason Kapoor, effectively combining sly amusement and sincerity).
But under journalist Paul’s uplifting influence (spoiler alert ahead), Billie begins to morph into a smart, savvy and deeply ethical woman who can stand up to the tyrannical Brock and think for herself.
And, under Susi Damilano’s sharp-eyed direction, the expressive Brooks as Billie makes the sashaying bottle blonde’s transformation both believable and hilarious. Brooks hints at reserves of moxie early on: slow, sly little half-smiles; an intense focus during an almost-wordless game of gin rummy; a weary resignation in facing Brock’s temper tantrums even as she’s under his thumb.
The ending is satisfying and at the same time, in its adherence to the romantic-comedy trope, somewhat disappointing.
But Kanin’s writing is witty and pointed throughout, and this production, in which even the most minor characters are played with comic panache, is terrific.
Presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Where: 450 Post St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; closes March 10
Tickets: $20 to $125
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org