By Keisha Allisse
The Tony Awards are coming up, June 12…(that sound you hear are a few dozen people clicking away from this page.) For you holdouts, a real treat: Nina Arianda, the breakout star of Born Yesterday, a play which had its original Broadway run back in 1946. The story follows a back dealing businessman, Harry Brock (played with gusto by Jim Belushi) who brings his pretty, but dim girlfriend, Billie (Arianda) with him on a trip to Washington D.C. In an effort to keep Billie from embarrassing him in front of political bigwigs, he hires Paul Verrall (Robert Sean Leonard), a journalist, to wisen her up, but it's Brock who ends up smarting in the end.
I saw the original movie with Judy Holliday in the Billie Dawn role, so to suffice it to say, Ms. Arianda had big shoes to fill (in a Broadway debut performance, no less) and in my mind, weren't likely to fill them. Billie is one of those parts that actors tend to 'play' the originator of the role playing the part rather than innovating the role and bringing something of their own to it. Without question, Arianda is a rare member of the latter group. I couldn't be more pleased to admit how wrong my assumptions were! What a revelation she was! The play loses steam without her, and giving due credit to Belushi who gives his all, Arianda is the true headliner.
In her hands, Billie becomes more than a kept woman, and after her tutoring with Paul, more than an educated woman; she becomes a voice. When Billie talks about bullies taking advantage of others, I got the sense it was not just Billie's words or even writer Garson Kanin's words, but Arianda's as well.
This young actress' great skill was to infuse this character with believability in a way that was touching and empowering. Unfortunately, most of the show isn't as fabulous as Ms. Arianda's performance. Tony winner, Robert Sean Leonard sleepwalks most of the way and Belushi seems to think the key to playing a blowhard is A LOT of yelling, which is true in part, but there is no nuance.
On a side note: this was the first play I attended where applause was showered before an actor set foot on the stage. The set design was stunning and pleasantly caught me off guard. Accoutrements aside, the rest of the cast were alright, the women though were more than alright, giving effort to stand out in smaller parts: Helen, the maid (Jennifer Regan) and Mrs. Hedges (Patricia Hodges). For a short while, in the beginning of the first act, I thought I was listening to an Aaron Sorkin play; rapid fire delivery (but minus the wit or humor). For this, I'm not sure if the culprit is time (the play is over 50 years old) or delivery. Even the best joke will bomb, if not delivered with precision timing. Part of me though is glad they ran through the dialogue quickly, it gave me back some precious time lost in the dull first and third act.
To be fair, I saw the show in previews, when a production works out its kinks and cuts the fat, but it doesn't appear that there's much that can be done save write a few more scenes for Arianda. Maybe instead of Born Yesterday, they should just call it A Star is Born.