Once upon a time, circa 1946 in Garson Kanin's delicious, not-so-retro retelling of the Pygmalion tale Born Yesterday, which is brightening the downtown sky via the Alley's lively production, dumb broad Billie Dawn (a heavenly lowbrow Melissa Pritchett), the mistress of heavy-handed junk magnate Harry Brock (Stephen Pelinski, blustery and dangerous), gets a life-enhancing education on a trip to Washington, D.C.
You see, Billie's along for the ride – Harry's ride – as bed candy for him, and not much else for her, except two minks, first class accommodation, and no questions. Gruff Harry's out to sway or buy influence for his shady business deal from a squishy politician (mostly strong arm when he can't sway or buy). Billie's in Washington to keep him sexual company. She's been signing her name to contracts for years as Harry's silent partner. All she knows is that a silent partner means, Look good, be available, and shut up!
When the snooty senator and his Mamie Eisenhower wife (Todd Waite and Elizabeth Bunch) visit for drinks in the tony hotel digs, Harry realizes that Billie sorely needs to get up to speed. How can he woo Washington politico big wigs if his former showgirl consort – Hey, I'm an actress; I had five lines in that revue! – wiggles provocatively around the room spilling out of her peignoir? When lefty newspaper reporter Paul (Jay Sullivan, warm and smart in a thankless role), who's profiling Harry for The New Republic (you know he's a classy egghead because he wears glasses), stands up to the NJ bully, Harry admires his chutzpah and hires him to teach Billie the finer things in life.
“I don't want you stinkin,” Harry yells at his bubble-brained doll before the senator arrives, referring to her constant trips to the bar, but he's really talking about her limited intellectual capacity. Off course, he's not one to talk, barging his way through life, elbowing Billie aside, getting whatever he wants because he's the loudest lout in the room. The big lug loves Billie in his fashion, as long as she does exactly what he says and exactly when he wants it.
This being a well-made play from the late '40s – maybe any era, come to think of it – Billie blossoms from Paul's fresh air, lapping up knowledge of the “finer things,” which includes bushels of self-awareness, political astuteness, and a subtly implied sexual awakening. She finds herself through books and their ideas (the Oxford English Dictionary is a favorite well-thumbed resource), and, eventually, to our satisfaction, in Paul's loving arms.
Paul really doesn't have much to do in this play except start Billie's motor. She takes the wheel from then on, petal to the metal. The role was beefed up in the classic movie adaptation (1950) when star William Holden was hired to transform Judy Holliday's incandescent Galatea.
But Billie is the prime mover of her own empowerment. Sure, she needs a kick start, but once propelled, she flies free and high. Paul tells her to read the newspaper and circle everything she doesn't understand and he'll explain it as best he can. The next time we see her, almost the entire front page is circled in red. There's no stopping her. She's hottest when learning.
Kanin had a legendary career: actor, assistant to Broadway's grand old man George Abbott, playwright, Broadway director (Diary of Anne Frank, Funny Girl), movie director (Bachelor Mother; Tom, Dick and Harry), author (Tracy and Hepburn, Smash). But he won his most lasting acclaim as a Hollywood screenwriter in collaboration with his wife, actress Ruth Gordon. You may not recognize their names anymore, but you know their sparkling work: A Double Life, Adam's Rib, Pat and Mike, The Marrying Kind.
A revelation just last month at the Alley as confused trailer park mom in The Christians, a showstopping but subsidiary character part, Pritchett gets the role of a lifetime with Billie Dawn. It's a star turn for sure. It's inevitable not to be influenced by Holliday's iconic portrait of the bimbo who makes good, but Pritchett overlays Billie with her own considerable charm and subversive wit. Watch how she not-so-subtly sweeps aside her gauzy nightgown to expose her gams when she anticipates Paul's evening visit to bring her more books. Or see her curl up into an easy chair in those tight toreador pants. (Katherine Roth's costumes are delightfully sleazy.) Now she sports horn-rimmed glasses. On her road to enlightenment, she almost purrs with satisfaction. We purr right with her. She's delicious.
Pelinski, the growl to Pritchett's feline hum, lets Harry be Harry: big, loud, crass. “I'm in junk,” he says all puffed up defending his low class fortune. A cranky spoiled baby, he gets his way by pushing around those beneath him. Though he's got a soft spot for Billie – in his world view she's lower than he is – he doesn't know how to handle the transformation he's started. Harry's all thunder, but Pelinski lets us glimpse the wounded little kid lurking in the clouds.
Harry pushes hardest against his most loyal cronies, Eddie Brock (John Tyson), his muscle, and Ed Devery (Jeffrey Bean), his business brains. Tyson and Bean, both Alley treasures, invest these supporting roles with gleeful panache. In battered pork pie hat, Tyson is straight out of Damon Runyan's demi-monde, all “dems” and “doz,” taking Harry's abuse like a soiled punching bag. Bean takes his abuse with a more inward jolt. He knows he's a sellout, successful, but still a sellout. He's a patsy and it's eating him alive. Bean shows us all this with a snap of his briefcase.
Under perceptive director Jonathan Moscone, Kanin's fairy tale romance glistens. Hugh Landwehr's dazzling '50s hotel suite, all black and gold with a gigantic chandelier that the Phantom would lust after, is a beaut. You know you're at the Alley because when somebody slams a door, nothing else moves. The company's solid backstage craftsmanship is beyond reproach.
If you like your comedy spiced with a soupcon of smart wit, a Cinderella story with sharp edges, then Born Yesterday, more prescient in its politics than during the Truman era when it was created, will leave you glowing. You might even purr.
Born Yesterday continues through July 3 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For more information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $26 to $100.