Garson Kanin's great comedy "Born Yesterday," which has been given a loving, hilarious revival, is an extremely American version of the Pygmalion legend. First produced in 1946, it is a play born of the optimism that galvanized this country during World War II and died on or about Nov. 22, 1963.
Billie Dawn, a very dumb blond, is the mistress of Harry Brock, a junk dealer who has come to Washington to buy a senator to help him defend his inalienable right to buy junk on a global scale.
To make Billie more socially presentable, Brock hires a reporter to educate her. A little learning, Brock learns, can be dangerous. Billie's slight exposure to Tom Paine turns her into a patriot. She helps the reporter get the goods on Harry.
If "Born Yesterday" had been written in the last few years, when self-improvement is measured strictly in financial terms, the newly awakened Billie, instead of turning Harry in, would have "raided" his company and made him a peon in her own equally seamy empire.
Much of the charm of the play stems from its belief in the power of education. This now makes it seem a bit naive. (If Shaw rewrote "Pygmalion," he would probably have Eliza learn computer skills; they would get her farther than correct speech.)
In our cynical era, the play's uncomplicated idealism makes it even more moving. What made "Born Yesterday" an instant hit, of course, was not its faith in the common man, but its brilliant humor, which the revival serves beautifully.
As soon as Ed Asner, who plays Brock, enters his deluxe hotel suite, we have the sense of a bull surveying his pasture. Jowly, portly, cloddish, Asner is oddly reminiscent of Khrushchev, perhaps because the first thing he does is take off his shoes (to give his feet a rubdown).
At times Asner may be a bit too boorish, as in a moment when, oblivious to the senator's prim, starchy wife, he shoves her to the end of the sofa. But there's no doubt that Asner, even in a wittily designed silk dressing gown, is a man made from junk.
Madeline Kahn, sometimes a self-indulgent actress, does her absolute best work as Billie. She flounces across the stage petulantly, suggesting her toughness, but there is something endearing about the aggressiveness with which she tackles her education or even her game of gin with Harry. (This celebrated scene comes off wonderfully, partly because the two work so well together, partly because of the dizzy way she sings the title song of the show she once had five lines in, "Anything Goes.")
Daniel Hugh Kelly is appealing and mild-mannered as the reporter, at his best when he lets off steam. Franklin Cover couldn't be more delicious as Harry's high-class lawyer. Ditto Joel Bernstein as his flunky cousin. There is splendid character work by John Wylie and Peggy Cosgrave as the senator and his wife.
At times the pace slackens. Though the set is elegant, it is annoying to see the Capitol dome out the window, always in bright daylight, a tiresome bit of symbolism. Quibbles aside, it's great to have one of the best of American plays back on Broadway.
Every decade some plays emerge fat with the promise of classic survival - but in the theater it is not always a matter of the survival of the fattest.
Some thin little plays, born free of pretensions, last longer than their more portentous kin. One such is Garson Kanin's "Born Yesterday," and it was born again at the 46th Street Theater last night.
"Born Yesterday" is cheap, shallow, manipulative, and utterly, utterly charming. It is a delicious comedy of manners, where the manners are bad, and the comedy evokes more knowing grins than reflective smiles.
The play, moreover, is built like a battleship, it has two imperishable comic characters, who will be beloved of actors as long as we have a theater, and it sustains a now unexpected comment on its times, a gleaming Age of Innocence when the virtues of democracy seemed cliche-clear and Washington ethics were as viable as sunlight.
George Jean Nathan's original comment on the comedy as "labored but ribaldly amusing" is still apt - the effectiveness of the play is more than the sum of its effects.
From the moment millionaire Edward Asner, as a self-made junk-metal dealer come to Washington to buy power and peddle influence, plumps himself down monumentally on a lush hotel couch, and picks his teeth with disdainful care, while his dumb-blonde mistress, Madeline Kahn, descends a staircase with the wary look of an arthritic stripper, it's Comedy Tonight.
It is 1945. World War II is over. Harry Brock (Asner) is a diamond in the rough, and means to stay that way. He believes that everyone has a price, and that the purpose of money is money itself.
He has already bought himself a fancy, if drunken, lawyer (Franklin Cover), who in turn has gotten him a powerful, if moth-eatenly corrupt, U.S. Senator (John Wylie).
But if Harry is to cut the mustard in Washington, particularly in Washington society, his mistress Billie Dawn (Kahn), a decorative but dim holdover from the original chorus of "Anything Goes" who distinctly suggests that anything went, needs to be gentrified.
In his search for a Pygmalion to polish his brassy Galatea, Harry picks up Paul Verrall (Daniel Hugh Kelly), a snobbish, priggish writer from the New Republic, quick to take Harry's money while stealing Billie's affections.
He gives her a crash course in art, music, couthness, and the United States Constitution, which persuades her to rebel against her harsh, but oddly loving, lout of a crook.
Eventually - with the good of the Republic smugly at heart - Billie and Paul run off together, proposing to blackmail Harry for life. This, the play suggests, is admirable.
But of course the plot is not meant to be inspected; the play is simply meant to be enjoyed. Who ever examined the motives of Lady Bracknell or the morality of Mrs. Malaprop?
What we have here are two larger-than-life caricatures on a collision course of comedy. The overbearing bully versus the put-upon victim-worm about to turn, with the contest lines further defined by having on one side a beetle-browed gangster and on the other a dumb ("I am stupid - I like it"), curvacious chorine.
Kanin's writing is absolutely on target; his wisecracks are sharp, witty and, as we can see, 43 years after the premiere, timeless.
And the characters - pray forget all that cutely self-congratulatory political moralizing which was part of the Hollywood ethos of its time - remain a delight forever.
To think of Billie Dawn is to think of Judy Holliday, even for people like myself who never saw her play it on Broadway, but have her performance frozen in memory from the later movie.
But although the role made her a star, it was originally designed for Jean Arthur (one could envisage her in a Capra movie version with James Stewart or Gary Cooper as the New Republic hero) who left the play on the road, and I myself recall Yolande Donlan being utterly delicious in the work's London premiere in 1947.
Miss Kahn is different - more tough, less dizzy, older, wiser and a tad more cynical. She lacks the vulnerable and endearing fragility of both her predecessors, but she brings to the role immaculate comic timing and a monstrous comic presence.
She is infinitely more exaggerated, but this very exaggeration helps the play overcome its fake liberal wimpishness that while fashionable when the movie Mr. Smiths of that world went to Washington, might now be overcoy.
As the abominable junkman Edward Asner, never quite abandoning his cuddly exterior, is adorably gruff, coarse and awful. Both he and Miss Kahn play the game as if it were a hand of gin rummy, and both of them very well know the deal. They are delicious.
The staging, credited to Josephine R. Abady, and supervised by John Tillinger, is cute and smooth, and of the supporting players Cover is excellent as the pickled, unmoralized lawyer, while Kelly shows a properly pompous high-mindedness as the somewhat tarnished white-knight journalist.
This is a fun evening that reacquaints us with two of the American theater's now classic grotesques here classically played, and should, on that account alone, not be missed.
Theatergoers who were born yesterday can only speculate about why Garson Kanin's ''Born Yesterday'' caused a sensation on Broadway in 1946. The play's flat new revival at the 46th Street Theater, enlivened solely by Madeline Kahn's game stab at the heroine, Billie Dawn, refuses to yield many clues. Nor can the ritualistic explanation for the comedy's initial runaway success - the emergence of Judy Holliday, the original Billie, as a star - be the entire story. If one eliminates musicals, ''Born Yesterday'' is the seventh-longest running play in Broadway history, eclipsing even Neil Simon's most popular works in the record books. Mr. Kanin didn't merely write a hit; he created a phenomenon.
A phenomenon very much of its day, perhaps. Mr. Kanin set his play in the nation's capital at a time of bustling transition that makes our current change of Presidents seem of little historical moment. Washington, a sleepy town before World War II, was suddenly a booming metropolis, itself born again in the new prosperity of peacetime. The country it governed was up for grabs. ''Born Yesterday'' - which shared its Broadway season with such other civic-minded plays as Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse's ''State of the Union'' and Arthur Laurents's ''Home of the Brave'' - asked what kind of democracy a rich, victorious United States was going to be, and it phrased the question in a vigorous, wisecracking way.
The play's high-minded concerns are tucked into a brassy Pygmalion tale redolent of both Damon Runyon and George Abbott, Mr. Kanin's theatrical mentor. The pugnacious Harry Brock (Edward Asner), a self-made scrap-metal tycoon, has come to Washington to expand his business empire by buying a Senator. He also hires a New Republic reporter (those were the days!) to teach cultured Capital Hill manners to his mistress Billie, a mink-clad ''dumb blonde'' who once labored in the ''Anything Goes'' chorus line.
To Harry's horror, Billie turns into a whistle-blowing crusader once her tutor has awakened her to Tom Paine and Dickens. ''This country and its institutions belong to the people who inhabit it!'' she says after seeing the light, and she means it. ''Born Yesterday'' believes there's nothing wrong with America that cannot be righted by an informed citizenry. Mr. Kanin's comedy is far more sanguine about the prospects of purging greed and corruption than are such related post-war dramas as Robert Sherwood's screenplay for ''The Best Years of Our Lives'' and Arthur Miller's ''All My Sons.''
The innocence of Mr. Kanin's patriotism, as expressed through the ingenuous spirit of Billie, must be recaptured like lightning in a bottle if ''Born Yesterday'' is to charm an audience today. The required freshness is entirely absent from the elephantine current production, which, arriving in New York after an extended road tour, lumbers about the stage like a dusty old Packard in search of a 100,000-mile overhaul.
The show has two directors - Josephine R. Abady and a so-called production supervisor, John Tillinger - and not one sustained spell of spontaneity. Miss Kahn at least offers the polished comic turn one expects, complete with funny walks and pouting double takes. If the Holliday cadences still can be heard in her voice, the actress has her own ditsy ways to hum ''Anything Goes'' and to exit Harry's $235-a-day hotel suite in a wiggly Mae West huff. The evening's one claim to passion arrives when she angrily tells off her keeper in the second act, in a heartfelt feminist revolt that prefigures speeches Mr. Kanin and Ruth Gordon would soon write for Katharine Hepburn in the movies ''Adam's Rib'' and ''Pat and Mike.''
Such is the staging's bumpy gait that even Miss Kahn is left hanging a beat after every joke, waiting with a self-conscious half-smile for the audience's laughter. And the rest of the casting conspires against her and Mr. Kanin. Daniel Hugh Kelly, as the New Republic reporter, is as robotically genial as a department store floorwalker, thereby rendering Billie's sudden infatuation with him ludicrous as well as sexless. The supporting players, most crucially the proper Washington types scandalized by Billie's faux pas, are stock mannequins who deprive Miss Kahn of worthy farcical foils even as they accentuate the situation-comedy contrivances in the script.
Mr. Asner also hails from a sitcom, but his lovably gruff television character of Lou Grant, first created for ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show,'' had all the depth the buffoons lurking about him in ''Born Yesterday'' lack. Yet his Harry Brock is disastrous. Barking his dems-and-dose lines in an accent that alternately sounds like Anthony Quinn's Zorba the Greek and Popeye, Mr. Asner plays the junk magnate as a one-note heavy. Villains are not this actor's forte (remember him in ''Roots''?), and even if they were, his characterization would still violate the play's spirit.
Harry is a bully, to be sure - he's a racketeer who slaps people around - but there must be something likeable about him if we are to believe that he and Billie have been together for over eight years and, more important, if his final comeuppance is to give the evening its essential comic payoff. Mr. Asner's excessively sinister fixer imposes a post-Watergate malevolence on a light comedy that wasn't built to carry such weighty baggage. In place of Mr. Kanin's innocent 1946 valentine to democracy's resilience, we're left with a morality play that leaves us feeling as jaded and dispirited as if we'd stayed home to watch tonight's network news.