“Born Yesterday”


Luminous, effervescent, captivating, staggering, astonishing, breathtaking. These are all words I have used in the past five days to describe Nina Arianda’s star-making performance as Billie Dawn in the smashing new revival of Born Yesterday. The truth is these adjectives don’t even begin to describe the magic currently happening onstage at the Cort Theatre. Ms. Arianda isn’t merely making a Broadway debut, she is effortlessly establishing herself as one of the brightest new faces in American theatre. (For the record, I missed Ms. Arianda’s off-Broadway triumph in Venus in Fur and the sound that you hear is me kicking myself).

She makes her entrance casually, gaudily dressed and entirely unimpressed with the opulent $235 a night hotel suite, her tycoon boyfriend’s braggadocio and the world of Washington politics. She quickly exits, but already an impression has been made. In the meantime other characters are talking, extolling necessary exposition that will come to impact the play’s climax and denouement. But it’s already too late for everyone else onstage. The tall, lithe blonde has merely walked across the stage and yet already captivated an entire audience. By the end of Born Yesterday, Arianda’s Billie has earned not only our love, but our respect and admiration.

Much of the credit is due to author Garson Kanin, who wrote in many interesting layers and memorable lines for the character. (When asked, “What’s Democratic?” Billie replies, “Not Republican.”) When the tycoon realizes she may become a liability in Washington circles, he hires a reporter to smooth out her rough edges. She resists these early attempts, insisting that she enjoys being dumb and that she is happy with what she has. But Billie Dawn is someone who has sacrificed her career, her relationship with her father and her dignity for a man who treats her as a business commodity, often brusquely and brutally. Knowledge is power, which the tycoon only realizes when it’s too late and she threatens his business exploits. It makes it all the more thrilling to watch her grow and become obsessed with learning, from asking questions. I haven’t felt so thrilled for a singular characterization in some time; Ms. Arianda is likely to become a sensation, not unlike the role’s originator Judy Holliday.

Jim Belushi plays Harry Brock, an uncouth junk tycoon who blusters his way through life and business, a contemptible bully. He is a mess of instant contradictions: embarrassed by Billie’s lack of social graces while raving about like an uncouth jackass. Much of his performance is pitched higher (even a reference to his yelling in the script), but Belushi provides a fantastic antagonist. Robert Sean Leonard is reporter Paul Verrall, idealistic but cynical; a man for whom integrity is important. It’s not the showiest of the roles, but Mr. Leonard plays him with utter sincerity, but could bring up the romantic spark a few notches.

Frank Wood plays Brock’s self-loathing alcoholic attorney who was once Attorney General, but is easily bought. Wood effectively portrayed these elements of the character, but there were some issues with his diction at the performance I attended. Michael McGrath lurks and menaces as Brock’s cousin and main henchman. Patricia Hodges makes a delicious cameo as a haughty senator’s wife. The cast of thirteen also includes Terry Beaver, Jennifer Regan and Danny Rutigliano in small, but memorable appearances.

While there are some creaky moments, I was most surprised by the play’s relevance. It’s a product of its time, and some of the sensibilities date. However, it was not much of a stretch from 1946 to 2011 watching a corrupt tycoon try to buy government support for his dubious business practices. Harry Brock is a larger-than-life antecedent of those CEOs and banks who brought the country to the brink of financial ruin in 2008. He’s brash, bombastic and so rich that he thinks he’s entitled to everything he wants. He will bully and abuse everyone from a bell-hop to U.S Senator. In our reality, he would most likely get his way. However, Kanin reminds us that the people are the government.

Director Doug Hughes, whose revival of The Royal Family was also a sumptuous period feast, stages Kanin’s text with a deft comic touch. These actors are playing for character and not laughs, making it a warmer experience than I even anticipated. The experience is heightened by the lavish set and costumes, with stunning period detail. John Lee Beatty’s divine navy blue and gold trimmed hotel suite earns gasps and applause as the curtain rises while Catherine Zuber’s costumes are perfection (the way she dresses Billie Dawn as she transforms is pure genius). It’s the best sort of eye candy.

Beg, borrow or steal. Do whatever you can to get to the Cort Theatre. Nina Arianda is not to be missed.

Grey Area

During my senior year of college, one of my English professors was arrested and charged with the sexual abuse and assault of one his students (who for the record, was a woman in her early 40s). We were all shocked by the allegations, considering the professor was 81 years old at the time, had been partially paralyzed by a stroke and was a well-respected member of our university’s faculty. The professor in question was permanently banned from entering the school campus and denied his retirement benefits. He maintained his innocence, contending that their sexual encounter was entirely consensual and that she was one who instigated their physical relationship. Brought to court, the case was ultimately declared a mistrial based on inconsistent grand jury testimony by the alleged victim, her history of previous sexual accusations which were proven false, and an audiotape made after the arrest in which she admits the relationship was consensual.

I couldn’t help but think about that case while reading about Oleanna in the days leading up to seeing it. It got me thinking about sexual harassment and, to a greater extent sexual abuse and rape charges. Especially when these incidents occur within a stratified environment, such as a university or workplace, where power becomes a factor. Should my professor have embarked on a sexual relationship with one of his students? No. At least, in my opinion – I see it as an abuse of that power. But as is often the case with two sides of the same story, the truth usually lies somewhere in that murky grey area called the middle.

There’s not much to like about either character in David Mamet’s volatile two-hander. John is a pretentious middle-aged professor too preoccupied with his pending tenure approval to focus on his students. Carol is a hypersensitive feminist who comes in search of his help, but ends up leading both down a path from which there is no return. However, likability isn’t in question here, nor is it relevant.

The play itself is slight, clocking in at around 75 minutes. But, oh does it get intense. It was actually my very first experience seeing a David Mamet play. I don’t know how I’ve missed any of his stage or film work, but there you have it. It took me about the first ten minutes to identify and understand the rhythm that is essential to his rapid-fire dialogue. As soon as I got used to it, I was riveted. And then enraged. (Possible spoilers ahead – you’ve been warned).

Oleanna originally premiered in 1992, only a year after the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy and it was an incendiary piece of theatre that got people talking and taking sides. Mamet was tackling hot-bed issues such as sexual harassment and political correctness at point blank. Well, the conversation is still happening as evidenced the other evening when I saw the play’s first-ever Broadway production. Director Doug Hughes originally staged this production in Los Angeles with Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles to stellar reviews, and it has now transferred to Broadway’s Golden Theatre with its cast intact.

The first scene shows the two characters in his office (which seemed more like a dean’s office than anything I’ve ever seen for a tenuring professor). She is worried about failing his course and is seeking additional help. He’s too preoccupied with the preparations for the new house he and his family are about to move into. One, of course, befitting his new tenure track and accompanying pay raise. Exasperated and desperate, she’s constantly interrupted by the phone calls he receives. He’s not giving her his full attention, which comes across as insensitive and down-right rude. In fact, in her most vulnerable moment, he snubs her for that ever-ringing cell phone and then surprise party in his honor that he’s late for. However, his actions toward her in the scene don’t prepare the audience for the second half, where she becomes the dominant force in their student-teacher relationship, complete with allegations of sexual harassment.

Pullman acquits himself well as the stammering professor whose seemingly innocuous, if insensitive, actions turn out to provoke Carol into action. While some of his earlier lines were inaudible, he gets into a groove with the dialogue and character. Pullman successfully shows his unraveling as the world around him steadily spirals out of control, as Carol’s actions push him to his limits. Stiles, who naturally exudes intelligence and strength (as evidenced in much of her film work), seemed a bit out of place in the first half, but becomes more believable as the play progresses. I hope Stiles, who carries herself well onstage, makes this the first of many appearances on Broadway.

When the lights came up at the end of the play, I felt contempt for Carol. I wondered why she would ruin this man’s career and life by misconstruing their encounters. At most, I felt perhaps he was too open about his family life, but didn’t see physical or verbal evidence to support her allegations. Why did she take the words he said and distort them to use against him? What was her underlying motivation? Was it just a misunderstanding blown out of proportion? His initial actions in the first scene, to me anyway, seemed rather casual. Perhaps he was a bit too forward in disclosing his personal life, but I didn’t see anything that really overstepped the boundary of teacher and student in terms of physical and emotional intent.

Now, Mamet has also stacked the play against Carol, making it more difficult to sympathize with her side of the story, as well as believe her interpretation of the facts. Plus, there’s an incongruity in how she claims ignorance at his phrasing and sentence structure , yet has the ability to construct rather complex, academic statements on her own. Another head-scratcher was Carol’s decision to revisit John’s office after filing her rape charge. It’s goes against what law enforcement officials and legal counsel would advise, plus it’s highly unlikely that anyone would do such a thing without a third party present.

I turned to Sarah to discuss all of these thoughts and ideas and immediately learned her perspective and perception was the exact opposite of mine, but was also completely valid. We saw the same performance, but a different play. And in this case, that’s a good thing.

Even more spirited was the post-show talk back. Every preview has featured special guests from various backgrounds – the night we saw it there were two sexual harassment arbitrators. With the help of a moderator, they offer their perspective, but more importantly the audience has the chance to get voice their opinions. The reactions cover the broadest spectrum imaginable. People were anxious and eager to talk about what they had seen with ideas popping up left and right. Theories abounded that Carol was calculated and manipulative, or that she has borderline personality disorder, or that she was a used by her unseen (presumably) feminist group, to enact a curricular rebellion. When the question was posed as to whether Carol represented modern feminism, there were more than a few woman who jumped out of their seats vociferously answering “No!”

It reminded me of the atmosphere that permeated the Walter Kerr Theatre four years ago after I saw John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (also directed by Hughes) where people were talking about the truth of the situation – who was right, who was wrong. In both plays, you have two lead characters completely at odds with each other over their perception of events. Both plays got audiences talking as the houselights came up, with people taking sides and hashing it out with one another. In Doubt, Shanley offers a level playing field for both Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. His ultimate goal is to put us in that grey area. However, Mamet is being more provocative, daring us to take a side.

At one point in the play, John talks about how we see the world through our own screens. We interpret everything through our own critical lens, which is colored by our life experiences and personal histories. Mamet takes the issues at hand, creates tense situations and uses the ideas to create the onstage dialogue in what is ultimately (if you’ll forgive me for being momentarily Mametian) a dramaturgical mind fuck. There are no right answers. There are no wrong answers. In fact, there is no simple answer for any of the questions raised by the play, just a continuing dialogue of ideas and perspectives.

Oleanna will make you uncomfortable. It should also make you tense, nervous and very likely really angry. It is for these reasons, though, that it should be seen. Be sure to stick around for the talk back; no doubt it will just as interesting (if not more) than the play.

Doubt: A Film

[I don’t intend on spoiling anything, but I do discuss certain aspects of the plot that may be considered spoilers, hard as it be to avoid them whenever you discuss this piece. So if you’re on the spoiler police squad that usually cries foul at those who do, go see the film first just to be on the safe side :)]

I rank seeing the original Broadway cast of Doubt high on my all-time list of theatre going experiences. Part of the appreciation stemmed from my Catholic upbringing and nine years spent in a parochial school, but mostly I was impressed with Shanley’s text. The principal of a 1964 Bronx Catholic school suspects one of the priests of having an inappropriate relationship with the school’s only black student. And go… the play in its taut ninety minutes isn’t about the validity of whether or not the priest has done it, but about the greater ramifications of our certainty and judgments. You have nun vs. priest, encompassing a greater conflict of conservative vs. progressive, Vatican I vs. Vatican II, man vs. woman (especially in the patriarchal hierarchies of the Roman Catholic Church).

As I watched the terrific play unfold onstage, I couldn’t help but think that it would open well for film and to my delight it has. There are aspects that will remain for my theatrical experience, the play’s dialogue is so expertly written (crafted? manipulated? you decide) to give the audience only circumstantial evidence for either argument. However, one must base their decision on the facts and not what is circumstantial which has led many theatre patrons to have fantastic discussions following three tier: they supported the nun, they supported the priest or they hadn’t a clue. The playwright’s intention was the latter, but far be it from anyone to convince anyone otherwise.

Shanley’s screenplay and direction have taken the play out of the church and principal’s office, giving us scenes in the courtyard, classrooms, convent, rectory and street, opening it up without tampering too much with what was presented onstage. Meryl Streep gives a stern, magnificently restrained performance as Sr. Aloysius, the principal who either has it in for this priest, or has the interests of her students in mind. Philip Seymour Hoffman is credible as Fr. Flynn, the charismatic priest who has…well, what has he done? I’m afraid I don’t know, nor do I think I ever will know. Amy Adams is spectacular as Sister James, the 8th grade teacher who finds herself caught in the middle of the battle. Viola Davis, on screen for 11 minutes as Donald Miller’s (why the change from Muller to Miller… anyone?) mother, is magnificent. Her scene is both devastating and unsettling, particularly in the unexpected turn their conversation takes. I can vividly recall the look on Cherry Jones’ face at the Walter Kerr, which was not unlike that on Meryl’s face.

The love of the play didn’t hinder me seeing this film, in spite of my underwhelming reaction to the casting of the two lead roles. In an ideal world, all our original casts would get to put their roles on screen. Cherry Jones was no exception for me. I had heard talk of her for years, but hadn’t really seen much of her work save for Cradle Will Rock and a memorable cameo in Ocean’s Twelve (the only thing I can recall from that otherwise DOA sequel). However, I was taking in her Tony winning role, especially beating the voracious Martha of Kathleen Turner. Well, to put it simply, I will drop anything and everything to see her onstage (only we’ve lost her to the current season of 24 where she plays the latest US president caught up in the world of Jack Bauer). Her performance as Aloysius ranks near the top of the list of live theatre experiences I’ve had, ably matched by the youthfully virile Brian F. O’Byrne sporting a Bronx accent and nary a trace of his Irish in a verbal volley for the ages, putting me at the edge of my seat. Her command of the stage and the audience was just thrilling, with her exceeding the hype surrounding her, with a performance reminiscent of the more stern nuns I’ve known and adored.

Anyway, the film is for the most part, quite excellent. Of all things I’m kind of nonplussed at the establishing shots of the film that really weren’t necessary. A nice touch too with Shanley giving Streep an entrance, with a great reveal after scolding several students for misbehavior at Mass. She gives one of the best turns I’ve ever seen her give (this from someone who finds her highly overrated, no offense meant) and certainly worthy of the accolades that have come her way. She finds her way through the script without being a total harridan which is important, especially in the final confrontation sequence. Hoffman, regardless of how the award guilds look at it, is giving a lead performance and is outstanding.

The final confrontation scene was electric onstage and I miss the higher stakes seen onstage, though that is a personal quibble and those of you seeing the film without having seen the show staged, this will mean nothing to you. Go, enjoy the film and discuss, it’s strength is in the text and in the performances (it’s fun too if you’ve seen the play to see where Shanley has cut and added scenes and dialogue). The writer and actors often discussed how the the play itself was the first act and the second act was the audience leaving the theatre arguing and debating over what they had seen. I would love to know what you thought about it as well.

It should be interesting to see how the film fares on Oscar night. While it was denied a Best Picture nod, the four main actors are in contention. The Best Supporting Actress category minus favorite Kate Winslet has suddenly become the one category that is completely up in the air and bears watching. Hoffman doesn’t stand much of a chance against the juggernaut of the late Heath Ledger and his iconic performance in The Dark Knight. And it appears that Best Actress is between Meryl and Kate. I’ll be en route to or in the airport at that point… so lord knows if I’ll see any of it.

Oh, and before I forget. One touch I loved? The casting of Helen Stenborg as Sister Teresa. Stenborg, the widow of the late Barnard Hughes, is the mother of Doug Hughes, the Tony-winning director of the original production.