One for the Good Guys | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

One for the Good Guys 

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Steppenwolf Theatre

A few weeks ago, on a Tuesday night not long--not very long at all--after Harold Washington's death, about 5,000 Chicagoans gathered outside City Hall and called up at the aldermen meeting inside. "No deals," they yelled. But the deal went through anyway, and Eugene "Rubber Legs" Sawyer became mayor.

In Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday, a former bimbo named Billie Dawn and an egghead liberal named Paul Verrall stand together in a posh hotel room in Washington, D.C., lecturing a senator, a millionaire, and a big shot lawyer. "No deals," they say. And sure enough the deal falls through.

How's that for wish fulfillment?

Born Yesterday is not just a sharp political satire and a great romantic comedy. For those of us who have felt kicked around in the days since the honest-to-God mayor of Chicago died, it's also a marvelous fantasy. I mean, the good guys win. A democratic principle is defended. And it's decided that, no, you can't mess with the people's right to determine how and by whom they'll be governed. What a show.

Of course, the bimbo and the egghead have something those crowds outside City Hall didn't: the goods. They know where the bodies are buried, they can produce the incriminating documents, and they've even got some economic muscle, Billie Dawn having bimboed her way into a big chunk of the millionaire's holdings. Born Yesterday's got a little something to say about tactics, too.

The actual funny business Billie and Paul are combating isn't much by current standards. No opportunistic alderman is installing a puppet mayor. Nobody at the Pentagon is selling arms to Iran and bankrolling a war with the profits. No president is covering up political dirty tricks. Nobody's really even doing anything that could get him arrested. It's all just a matter of a rich man buying himself a public servant. Harry Brock, a scrap metal mogul who made what might be called a killing in World War Two, needs some legislation put through so he can deal junk on an international scale. He's contributed $80,000 to a certain Senator Hedges, and now he wants to see a return on his investment.

Brock has come to Washington to oversee the transaction. He's brought his mistress, Billie, with him--but her frowsy vulgarity won't play at Georgetown parties. So he hires the wildly overqualified Verrall to give her some polish. Unfortunately for Brock, Verrall thinks he's actually supposed to teach her something. He guides her through Tom Paine and the New York Times, Picasso and Sibelius, the National Gallery and the Supreme Court. And before long, she's not only got polish, she's got wise. Imbued with the grandeur of democratic ideals, Billie recognizes the ugliness, the venality, the essential subversiveness of Brock's tactics. She realizes that Brock has made himself an awful bargain: canceling out Hedges's 800,000 constituents at the rate of ten cents a head.

Kanin oversimplifies portions of this theatrical civics lesson. He's got Verrall, for instance, defining fascism as institutionalized selfishness, which sounds good but ignores a lot. And when Billie confronts the good senator, asking him why Brock's got such a disproportionate amount of influence, Kanin lets Hedges trail off into silence rather than give her the obvious answer that entrepreneurs like Brock generate wealth for America and therefore deserve special legislative consideration. Of course, given the context, such an answer would bring up queasy questions about the basic compatibility of democracy and capitalism. Which would be going too far--especially for a comedy that hit Broadway in 1946, the year before Joseph McCarthy joined the Senate.

Still, even with its carefully positioned blind spots, Born Yesterday has its effect. Simply by reminding us of what America's supposed to be. Simply by expressing the simple notion that a few well-heeled weasels shouldn't be allowed to subvert the will of the people--the people, say, just for an example, who voted for Harold Washington. Steppenwolf ought to arrange a special viewing for aldermen.

If the aldermen came, they'd see some extraordinarily fine actors playing their roles and each other with the focused smoothness that seems to characterize a production directed by Frank Galati. Everything's just so interesting here: from Robert Breuler's jovial, broken lawyer to John Mahoney's jovial, vicious Brock; from the creepy emptiness of Gerry Becker's senator to the quiet, slightly caustic aloofness of Randall Arney's Verrall--an aloofness that cracks under Billie's influence.

Arney's the consummate Adlai Stevenson intellectual in his brown tie and horn-rims. But I was initially a little taken aback by Glenne Headly's look and manner as Billie. She's a mess at first--wearing Kevin Rigdon's ingeniously ugly dresses, her hair a borderline rat's nest. Not merely two-bit, but negligent. Which isn't at all what I expected, having been raised on Judy Holliday's knockout film-version Billie. Of course, I caught on after a while: Headly's Billie hasn't any self-respect. When she struggles with big words, it's not a high school equivalency degree she's after, but a sense of worthiness. And it's worthiness more than anything--more than art or love or new words--that makes her capable of doing the right thing.

This is good to remember. The whole show's good to remember, especially as it's done here--played for the comedy but not the laughs, blessed with a director and company smart enough and talented enough to give it weight. Boy, I hope the aldermen see this.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.


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