Al Maffei

Theater Review – Born Yesterday at Haddonfield Plays and Players

At first I thought Born Yesterday a bit dated. After all, this 1946 show featured some antediluvian characters one wouldn’t recognize in the modern era. Harry Brock was an unscrupulous businessman. He’s in Washington, D. C. ostensibly to ‘sight-see’ but in actuality to bribe a senator to pass favorable legislation for his company. Norval Hedges was a senator motivated by money, not the principles of American government. Ed Devery was a corrupt alcoholic attorney. He used to work for the Justice Department, but left public service to facilitate Mr. Brock’s unethical commercial endeavors. I’ll tell you: I really had to suspend my disbelief to buy into this story.

I had the privilege of watching the Haddonfield Plays and Players troupe present this piece on Friday, February 27th. They did an exceptional job. Al Maffei really brought Harry Brock’s character to life. He strutted about the stage like a modern day emperor surveying his domain. In the tone of a New York street thug he pretentiously barked orders to his underlings; in the character’s mind this meant everybody. The casual cigar flailing added a nice touch.

Emily Brennan turned in a fine performance as the lovable, but dull-witted Billie Dawn. I found her chemistry with her love interest/paramour/ educator Paul Verrall (played by Charlie Kirkwood) well done. It brought to mind Eliza Doolitle and Professor Henry Higgins only with much more edge to it. After Verall agreed to Harry’s offer of $200.00 per week to make Billie more compatible with Washington society, she decided to give him a bit of an education of her own. (Don’t worry, folks. If you don’t mind some bad language, you can bring the kids to this show.)

Brennan also showed outstanding chemistry with Maffei. After repeatedly describing Billie as a dullard, the two sat down to a game of gin. Unlike the audience, the two thespians managed to keep straight faces to Billie’s repeated shouts of “Gin!” To date, this scene represented the best comic exchange I’ve had the privilege of watching during live theater.

Billie’s transition served as the centerpiece of the drama.  Verrall’s exposing her to books and especially, left-wing political thought, moved the story forward. The comic japes and yuks made the story much more enjoyable. Without them, this would’ve been an evening long disquisition on the dark side of unfettered capitalism, political corruption and a jaded citizenry.

I mentioned left-wing political thought, right? I’d give the playwright, Garson Kanin, credit for not turning this into a dry polemic. I should point out that several characters described Harry Brock as a ‘fascist’. He admitted he was a dealer in ‘junk’; something he took pride in. The catalyst of Billie’s change worked as a writer for the New Republic.  Yeah, Kanin wasn’t very subtle in allowing his political views to come through in the text.

All three acts of this show took place in Suite 67D in the best hotel in Washington, D. C. The crew did a phenomenal job with the set design. It included most of the suite with the exception of the kitchen and the two bedrooms. I liked that both of the latter were up a flight of stairs. That showed good attention to detail. At first I wondered if the show would keep my attention without scene changes. Thanks to the superb direction by Susan DeMinico and the performance by the cast, this issue didn’t arise.

The show runs through March 7th. I’d encourage anyone with an interest in a quality community theater performance, to see Born Yesterday presented by Haddonfield Plays and Players. While I described the show as a comedy, I should point something out. My opening remarks in this column were meant to be humorous. The more I thought about it. Born Yesterday first premiered in 1946. Unfortunately, many of the serious themes explored in the performance are just as relevant today. No amount of histrionic prowess can make that funny.