Feature

Born Yesterday

Broadway newcomer Nina Arianda more than makes the grade as the naïve chorus girl in Garson Kanin's 1946 play, who arrives in Washington on the arm of a corrupt billionaire.

Cort Theatre
New York
(212) 239-6200

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“It takes a lot of smarts to act dumb,” said Elisabeth Vincentelli in the New York Post. Stepping into a tricky role immortalized by Judy Holliday on stage and screen more than half a century ago, Broadway newcomer Nina Arianda more than makes the grade as a naïve chorus girl who arrives in Washington on the arm of a corrupt billionaire. This “technically dazzling comedienne” can have you roaring at her character’s malapropisms while making you believe in the dancer’s transformation from bimbo to self-assured whistle-blower. Employing a squeaky “Noo Yawk” accent, Arianda “lands all her quips, with inspired touches of physical humor for good measure.” Yet as Arianda’s Billie Dawn befriends an earnest reporter named Paul (House’s Robert Sean Leonard) and gets wise to the backroom dealings of her boyfriend, Harry (Jim Belushi), she exudes an “uncommon warmth and charm.”

Arianda can’t completely disguise the fact that Billie is “essentially a classy variation on a dusty stereotype,” said Charles Isherwood in The New York Times. Even after Billie is educated by Paul and “acquires a grounding in democratic values and the moral compass that comes with them,” Garson Kanin’s 1946 script continues to make light of her daffy ignorance and also requires that she switch allegiances from Harry to Paul rather than assert independence. Yet if the play’s sexual politics “still carry a whiff of the postwar years,” its depiction of a capitol up for sale to the highest bidder could “scarcely” be more resonant.

What might seem oddest to modern audiences is the play’s faith that a more knowledgeable citizenry would be able to clean up the cesspool, said Scott Brown in New York. But if that Capra-esque view of American government seems quaint, “maybe we should consider what really needs revision: the play or our atrophied ideals.” Arianda is “the most exciting find of the Broadway season” in part because she’s discovered a way to make the dumb blonde of a 1940s script stand in for all of us today who, though saturated by news, remain essentially uninformed about how our government works. Her character’s “Palin-in-reverse” journey takes us “to a realm beyond cheap irony, to a place where the naïf can still shame us with the simple truth.”

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