Stephen Pelinski as Harry Brock and Melissa Pritchett as Billie Dawn
in the Alley Theatre’s production of Born Yesterday. Photography By Lynn Lane.
“I haven’t left the theatre this spitting mad in a long time.”
That was the Tweet from me just minutes after seeing the Alley Theatre’s production of Garson Kanin’s 1946 play, Born Yesterday. I’ve taken a couple days to simmer down, collect my thoughts and most importantly see if my ire would abate. Perhaps I was just having one of those days when I saw the show. Maybe I was overly irritated. Possibly I wouldn’t be angry any longer.
No dice, I’m still pretty miffed. Here’s why:
Born Yesterday is the IKEA of stage comedies. It’s flimsy and utilitarian and sure it fills the room, but it’s the kind of show that you desperately want to replace with a better, more substantial and witty production once you have the time and money to do so. I say this not because the Alley, in their usual splendid design fashion, didn’t make the show look good. The upscale two story hotel room set looks plushly glorious. I say this because the plot itself is remarkably shallow and lacking.
Harry Brock is a bully, a boor and a billionaire who made his money in the scrap metal business. He and his ditsy girlfriend Billie arrive in Washington D.C so Brock can grease a Senator to help him arrange favorable circumstances for his junkyard business empire. Brock is concerned that Billie’s stupidity will make him look bad in front of the D.C. crowd, so he hires journalist Paul Verall to educate her. The teacher and student fall for each other and Billie gets half a brain outta the deal. With her new found smarts, she realizes how crooked and abusive Brock is and thwarts his shady business plans.
That’s it. That’s the whole show. No backstory. No insight. No twists or turns or tension or anything that would make this a remotely interesting comedy to partake in. Worst still, like the uber obvious plot, we see the low hanging fruit jokes coming a mile away. But this alone, while frustratingly disappointing, wouldn’t have been enough to tip me over to the rage side of town. That happened when I realized just how disrespectful those low handing fruit jokes are to a modern audience.
Born Yesterday is a show that asks us to laugh at how dumb a woman is. Over and over again. Billie is a floozy and happy to be that way. She doesn’t read the paper, or know anything about how the country runs and is quite sure that London and England are two different places on the map. With her squeaky baby voice that turns loud and raunchy when she’s pissed, Billie faux pas her way through most of the show and it’s our job to laugh AT her for it.
As for her acquired smarts by the end of the play, well she doesn’t start to get “learned” until she realizes she has a crush on Paul, her teacher. She herself even admits that the only reason she agreed to study is that she figured it was the one way to seduce him.
So yeah. She does it to bag a guy.
I have no doubt that this was hilarious in the 40’s when it hit the stage. But just like Canada’s new Prime Minister said when explaining why he made sure 50% of his Cabinet were females, it’s 2016. A year where rape culture and female victim blaming is front and centre in our news and minds. A year where Hollywood is being called to task on inequitable pay for woman artists. A year where the United States has its first female Presidential nominee.
And yet THIS is what the Alley Theatre thought would be a good programming choice? Look I know these decisions are made way in advance, but c’mon…who didn’t read the tea leaves over there? I don’t care if it was ten years ago, this type of misogyny without irony, substance or anything important to say to us has no business being produced. I don’t say it often, but I was offended. Worst still, I was offended that the Alley, who call themselves “one of America’s leading not-for-profit theatres” thought so little of their audience, male and female, that they would offer this up as a good time comedy.
Shame on them. They know better. We deserve better.