Saturday, June 18, 2011

Funny enough

It was the reviews that convinced me I needed to see Born Yesterday on Broadway. My initial reaction was something like, "Eh, there's a movie, and the movie has Judy Holliday, and I'm very happy with that, thanks." But reviews like Michael Feingold's made it sound like something much more exciting than a run-of-the-mill revival of a reliable old comedy was happening at the Cort. And you know I love Feingold. So I went, and I'm sorry to say it was pretty much what I would have expected if I hadn't read any of those reviews. Fine, entertaining enough, but not especially good.

I should say that Jim Belushi was out last night, and perhaps that threw everyone else's game off more than I could detect. But his understudy, Bill Christ, was just fine, and the problems I had with the production wouldn't have been fixed by a stronger presence in that one role. Basically, I didn't see the "snappy" and sensitive direction Feingold saw; what I saw was much more in line with what I've come to expect from Doug Hughes after A Man for All Seasons and Inherit the Wind. If you want to make an old play feel fresh, I don't think Hughes is your man. In this case, there was a void where much of the emotional content should have been.

This was most obvious in the first-act scene where Senator and Mrs. Hedges pay a social call. Billie's performance in that context is what sets the silly Pygmalion plot in motion: Brock, himself fairly rough around the edges, is embarrassed by her unrefined behavior and realizes that he needs to polish her up if he's going to get anywhere in Washington. But in the scene I saw onstage, Billie didn't seem to be embarrassing herself especially -- she didn't register much humiliation, and neither did Brock, nor the senator and his wife. It was just a scene in which Billie says funny things, like every other scene, and I saw no reason why it should have motivated Brock to change anything about her. For that matter, they didn't strike me as a couple that had been together "eight or nine years" -- their relationship was less believable and therefore less affecting than it should have been. I never saw any reason for Paul Verrall to perceive Billie as an innocent, an "angel," before he said as much to her. And their chaste romance had none of the electricity it should have had.

Nina Arianda was excellent, as you have very likely heard. Still no Judy Holliday, though; I enjoyed her energy, and she had some moments of ingenuity, but I didn't feel my life had been changed.

Charles Isherwood's review in the New York Times was more in line with my take, especially this:
Holliday’s warmth and vulnerability helped amplify the character’s humanity in the movie, but Ms. Arianda doesn’t manage to project these qualities in sufficient doses to disguise the slight condescension that hovers over Kanin’s sympathetic but sentimental portrait of a dim bulb who suddenly glows bright when a helpful guy turns on the light switch. This lack of transfiguring vulnerability also makes the romance between Billie and Paul seem a synthetic plot device.
Act three dragged -- the winding-down process took much too long. (I remember the movie dragging, too, although in that case it's William Holden's lengthy, earnest patriotic speeches I recall boring me.) These are all things a director is supposed to attend to and correct.

Here I can wholeheartedly agree with Feingold:
The one major directorial oddity is Frank Wood's weirdly off-key rendering of Harry's self-hating lawyer; one minor role, the senator's wife, also misfires.
Yes and yes. I was bewildered by Patricia Hodges's take on the senator's wife, which amounted to a desperate mugging for laughs in defiance of what the script actually gave her to do. Later I realized that she had only that one scene, and she was trying to make the most of it. Still: bad direction, bad performance. And Frank Wood was all wrong, for reasons I can't understand but must again lay at the feet of the director.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: see the movie. See this too, if you like, but it's missable.

BONUS REVIEWS: Head over to dotCommonweal to read about my visits last week to Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and Freud's Last Session -- which had more in common than I expected.

No comments: