-Theatre Review by Nairobi RL Collins–
For the final show of their ninety-ninth season of continuous production, The Vagabond Players in Fells Point, Baltimore present Born Yesterday, June 5 – 28. This 1946 Broadway hit has enjoyed one of the longest runs in history and was adapted into a classic 1950 film. The play explores the dark side of money and politics in post–World War II Washington, D.C.
Born Yesterday is an intimate look at money and power and the ensuing corruption that occurs when unscrupulous people have both. The play examines the dangers of naiveté as well as the power that comes through knowledge and self-education, casting more-than-subtle nods at women’s liberation.
We are introduced first to investigative reporter Paul Verrall and New Jersey junkman Harry Brock, a millionaire ignoramus, and bully. Verrall, played by Torberg M. Tonnessen, is a straight-talking gentleman who has been called to interview Brock about his great fortune, his arrival in Washington and his affairs. Where Verrall is civil, subdued, and knowledgeable, Brock—ably and convincingly played by Steven Shriner—is an intimidating man with a loud voice and a big personality. He runs the stage like an angry bull with red in his eyes and often shouts “Do what I tell ya!” to people who aren’t keen on obeying him.
Shriner’s boisterous character is tempered by cast-mates Carol Conly Evans as the housekeeper and the senator’s wife, Bruce Levy as the bellman and barber, and Mark Wibble as Harry’s cousin Eddie. These comedic roles smartly punctuate the play.
Brock is in town to lobby the corrupt Senator Norval Hedges (played by Bill Bossemeyer) and to make a deal that will enrich Brock, giving him greater political influence. Harry fears that while he tries to make connections in Washington his girlfriend’s ignorance will cause people to judge him. Billie Dawn is a beautiful trophy girlfriend with the looks of a classic film actress and the voice of a Jersey-born street girl. (Indeed Anne Shoemaker makes an entrance as Billie Dawn.) When she informed that she will receive lessons in refinement, Billie refuses, and Harry does his usual to get his way. He storms about, shouting “Do as I say!” Unfortunately for Harry, these words lead to the unraveling of his schemes.
Verrall agrees to educate Billie, at the insistence of Harry. Anne Shoemaker converts Billie Dawn from an ignoramus to a scholar in a beautiful, nuanced character evolution. Billie Dawn’s confidence builds as she takes a moral stand against her boyfriend’s schemes and realizes her power not only to stop them, but also to become a better person.
Ed Devery, played aptly by Mark Scharf, is a lawyer in his early 50s. He is also a former secretary of a great Supreme Court justice and once known as a man with a promising future. Fifteen years later, however, Devery’s only client is Harry Brock, whom he is currently aiding in his shady scheme. Along with the corrupt Senator Hedges, Brock, Devery, and cousin Eddie represent the different types of men that precipitated the decline of honest democracy in America.
Set in a lavish hotel suite, the action is so well-paced that one hardly notices that the play occurs in only one room over the course of two months. The set is a deep and exact replica of a late-1940s hotel decor. The pillows, couches, doors, and décor (including what may be genuine vintage wallpaper) create the beautiful illusion of a world outside the stage walls. As with other Vagabond sets, the attention to detail of sound and light, combined with the hyper-real set, create the effect of peering into a diorama.
“The proper study of mankind is man.”
“Of course that means womankind, too, right?”
“Of course it does.”
Billie learns a lesson in Thomas Paine as she grows more aware of her role in Brock’s scheme and the pathetic state of the important men that surround her. She reminds Senator Hedges and the lawyer Devery of the greatness they are supposed to represent. They express that they are sorry for what they are, but they are unwilling to rise above the corruption. As Billie becomes wiser, she emerges as a force to be reckoned with, standing taller than anyone else in the room. She also falls in love with Paul Verrall, who embodies the truth that she has come to embrace.
Born Yesterday is wonderful play filled with sterling allusions to the meaning of American democracy and citizenship. Written at a time when the American government was taking new shape amid postwar prosperity, the play is an allegory depicting the essence of lesser men: the ignoramus with money, the educated man with no power, the powerful man with no courage. In opposition to these men is an enlightened man who seeks and shares the truth and an uneducated but responsible woman who strives to better herself and her country. Born Yesterday is showing again now at a time when such lessons need to be reiterated. Hopefully, this show continues its long run, and the Vagabond Players will do the same as they approach their centennial season.
Post Photos Courtesy of the Vagabond Theatre