Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is today seen as a sentimental bit of corn that reflects an idealism about American government that has little in common with the real thing. But at the time that it came out, politicians denounced it as a cynical slam on their profession, highlighting corruption they would prefer to keep under wraps.
Capra’s film and Garson Kanin’s “Born Yesterday” bookended World War II. When the latter hit Broadway in 1946, the U.S. was in the throes of victory and dominated the world stage. It seemed like an even less apt time for an examination of legislative larceny, even one with a happy ending.
In two quick-moving hours, Posner’s fine cast takes the audience back to the days of screwball comedy…
A crude, smarmily charming businessman from the urban Northeast arrives in Washington. He has made his millions by bullying his rivals and never paying full price if he can get away with it. He now turns his eyes on the capital, looking to cash in, and discovers that it’s not so hard to get pliable legislators to go along. Sound familiar?
Kanin’s decades-old comedy has more than a bit in common with our times, as millionaire junk dealer Harry Brock gleefully dives into the swamp, all the while protesting that he has not forgotten his roots. In the end, he is brought down by that one thing all would-be tyrants fear: knowledge.
Brock, played in Aaron Posner’s Ford’s Theatre production by Edward Gero, has one weakness: his long-time paramour Billie Dawn. Embarrassed by his own lack of class as he mixes with the D.C. elite, Brock — who Gero plays first with a light touch and later with menace — projects his insecurities onto Billie and assigns her the task of becoming cultured. But as a philosopher-crook in Brock’s employ warns, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Kimberly Gilbert, a versatile actor known for the radical fare of Woolly Mammoth and Taffety Punk, puts a feminist spin on Billie. The character is written as the archetypal showgirl floozy, put through “Pygmalion” paces by a smart young journalist hired by Brock. But Gilbert’s Billie is never dumb — she has just not yet had the chance to discover the joys of learning. Journalist Paul (played with charm by Cody Nickell) does not remold Billie so much as open doors for her.
Gilbert is the show’s centerpiece, adding delightful physical comedy with occasional shimmying dance steps that hark back to Billie’s time as a chorus girl, and in a tender scene where she and Harry — who has briefly let down his guard — play gin rummy. Gilbert’s Billie is also well aware that sexuality is currency, a knowledge she exploits even as her ambivalence about it grows.
The show’s action plays out on a sumptuous set by Daniel Lee Conway that could pass for a room in the White House. Billie and Harry storm the city in brightly colored fashions by costume designer Kelsey Hunt.
Eric Hissom embodies the lazy corruption of the city as a former government bigshot now working for Brock; Evan Casey channels Art Carney in his portrayal of Brock’s majordomo from back home. The cast is rounded out by Todd Scofield as a corrupt and nebbishy senator, and D.C. stage mainstay Naomi Jacobson as both his flinty wife and a jaded maid.
In two quick-moving hours, Posner’s fine cast takes the audience back to the days of screwball comedy while also reflecting on the politics of today. As Hissom’s character tells Billie, it’s the fact that too few people care that lets thugs like Brock take control — and as Paul later warns, “A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.”
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
“Born Yesterday” runs through October 21, 2018, at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th Street NW, Washington. Click here for tickets.