Born Yesterday is one of the Purple Rose's rare forays into producing plays by dead guys. Though the program notes call it a "classic," unless you're a real buff you've probably never heard of it. It opened in 1946, had a respectable run on Broadway, was duly made into a movie with Judy Holliday, Broderick Crawford, and William Holden, and then disappeared.
Playwright Garson Kanin recycled — competently, but not spectacularly — some popular archetypes of the era. You've seen them before. Thuggish, cigar-smoking self-made millionaires, flanked by their slick lawyers and assorted minions, boss crooked politicians around. Women are dames: saucy, worldly wise, with such great clothes my envy was painful. (Women — how did we let all that slip through our fingers?) The day is finally saved by a mild-mannered, plainspoken, but educated man of the people.
This production of Born Yesterday is splendid, though. The well-drilled ensemble work of the Purple Rose company delivers all these pleasantly familiar types and their somewhat predictable little story flawlessly. The production has two other things going for it as well. Michelle Mountain, who plays Billie Dawn — a kind of gangsterland Eliza Doolittle — is just breathtaking. Her energy and dazzle goose the predictable script in unpredictable ways about every twenty seconds. You don't want to take your eyes off her — but if you do, she's equally fun to listen to.
The second surprise is the veil of complexity lent by the passage of sixty years since the script was written. Time, plus skilled direction, has given the script some subtle shading that can't have been there when the play was performed in its own era. The story turns on a simple notion that the treasures of the mind will prevail over filthy lucre. But you'll perhaps feel, as I did, that some of the ideas Kanin cherished as enduring intellectual treasures now look quaint, while the sudden eruption of the wisecracking Billie Dawn and her sugar daddy into a scene of timeless, realistic domestic violence tells a story Kanin didn't see.
Jeff Daniels chose the script and originally intended to direct Born Yesterday himself but was unexpectedly pressed into service in Hollywood. Instead it was directed by Suzi Regan, who deserves double praise for birthing a project conceived by someone else.
Born Yesterday is at the Purple Rose Theater every Wednesday through Sunday through June 15.