Believe it or not, there was a time when some people thought goodness could triumph over political corruption and big-business ownership of the government. This concept seems impossibly naive these days, especially in light of recent under-the-table payments to journalists for favorable coverage of administration initiatives and the eagerness of both Republicans and Democrats to bury concerns about the environment and homeland security under the muck of corporate largesse.
Still, those old Capra-esque populist fairy tales evident in films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington are still appealing, and that's why Born Yesterday at Lakeland Theatre still has the ability to raise a goosebump or two. Written by Garson Kanin in 1950, the script takes a comical but occasionally penetrating look at corruption in our nation's capital through the actions of millionaire junkyard baron Harry Brock and his dimbulb ex-chorine girlfriend Billie Dawn. Even though the central role in the Lakeland production falls short, it's still a fitfully amusing journey back to when we thought honesty really could change things.
The coarse Brock and his posse -- including lawyer Ed Devery, muscle-headed gofer Eddie (Noah Varness), and Billie -- have set up shop in a luxurious hotel suite in D.C., where the plans are to grease the palms of enough congressmen to get the right legislation passed. But Brock thinks his amply endowed arm candy is a little too dense to stay afloat, conversationally speaking, with the Washington crowd. So he hires magazine reporter Paul Verrall to give Billie a crash course in current events and diction. Trouble is, Billie learns a) that she really likes her bespectacled tutor and b) just how sleazy Brock is.
In this handsome production under the direction of Martin Friedman, most of the cast performs up to snuff, with Mark Cipra capturing the casually brutal dominance of street-smart Brock and Bob Keefe ideal as the sell-out attorney with a spine of mush. Andrew Narten goes right to the edge with his rendition of Paul -- a twitchy, fluttery presence, he looks like a nervous meerkat caged with an angry rhino. Even when the pacing slows from too much dead air between cues, these actors maintain the show's momentum.
But the play revolves around Billie, a role indelibly played by Judy Holliday both onstage and in film. Although Liz Conway manages the déclassé accent well and gets off a few good lines, she doesn't convey Billie's innocent heart. Instead of creating an adorably uneducated and ultimately vulnerable naif, Conway comes off primarily as a tough gal who could hold her own in a shot & beer bar. This approach doesn't allow the audience to fall in love with and root for Billie, which undermines the surprises that occur after intermission.
Of course, the denouement finds the bad guys suitably punished and our union saved from the predations of an ethically bankrupt oligarch. That's why, if you're ever looking for the video of the Judy Holliday version, you'd better try the fantasy section at Blockbuster.