by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & ith the season's deepest ensemble, most energetic direction, most loathsome crook, best inspiration in a tight skirt and most delight taken in skewering corporate sleaze, the current revival of Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday (at Actors Rep through April 22) may be the best darn civics lesson any Spokane theater will offer for some time. It's certainly the funniest.
Change the terms a bit -- Michael Milken sold junk bonds, Ken Lay sold junk energy -- and Harry Brock, Kanin's corrupt magnate who sells plain old junk, starts to look like our contemporary.
Brock hunkers down in our nation's capital to spread some love and bribery. He's used to getting his way, see, so don't try any monkey business, pal. Only he's got this dumb broad of a girlfriend, and she's like to make him look uncouth around all these socialites and senators. So he decides to hire a writer (a real wiseacre, that one) to tutor the chorus girl. Only the plan backfires, and Brock himself learns to spell some big words. Words like "retribution."
An opening sequence, with bellhops sprinting, flunkies fetching drinks and Harry howling, sets a dizzying tone. Tralen Doler's direction -- set for maximum energy and volume -- is as snappy as the straps under the bellhops' chins.
As Brock, Michael Weaver is as morally ugly as he's ever been on a local stage. With his voice set on "bellow," Weaver expects to get his way, in everything, all the time. But Weaver shows us Brock's insecurities, too: He's still settling scores from his boyhood, still wants his dame Billie to like him. With his tongue lumping beneath his lower lip, his mouth tightening with menace, Weaver makes a convincing bad guy. Some of his comic mannerisms, unfortunately, linger -- double-takes over surprises that Brock would ride out with bluster. But Weaver's boss man, switching in a flash from nice to mean, is so mercurial that it's unsettling.
As Paul Verrall, the reporter who takes on the tasks of educating Billie and exposing Brock, Dexter Ankrom borrows from William Holden's look in the movie. More important, he's persuasive as the idealist and teacher. When he urges Billie to read Pope and Dickens and Paine, he's aiming his exhortations at us, too.
Billie Dawn -- Verrall's student in his tutorials, the dumb redhead who wises up to how corrupt the whole system is, especially her own husband -- is played here by one of the finest actresses Spokane has seen in the last dozen years. Christina Lang lounges on sofas with her limbs making acute angles; she transforms stair-climbing into a bump-and-grind. But Lang's is, ahem, a very well-rounded performance because she also conveys Billie's genuine desire for self-improvement and simple honesty.
At first, Billie gloats about her two fur coats (matching the number of ideas she has in her head). In the famous (and mostly non-verbal) gin rummy scene, she coos and smirks; later, in speeches recalling Billie's past, Lang combines shtick with poignancy. As always, Lang's exceptional in this role.
If you want still more acting lessons, look for the details in Doler's ensemble. Watch Ann Whiteman, a vision of Mamie Eisenhower propriety as the senator's wife, simpering and grimacing as Harry puts on his vulgarian display. Watch John Oswald, the corrupt senator, staring with self-disgust into his tumbler full of whiskey, then snapping into the next charm offensive. Watch Patrick Treadway blanch when his lawyer is robbed of his self-deceptions; notice how his tippling accelerates, growing sloppier and more desperate.
The uncredited set gleams with fancy '50s fixtures -- and though the flimsy double-door entry is a flaw in this otherwise elegant hotel suite, a bust of Shakespeare presides over the bookshelves, as if to hint at all the tutoring and mind-opening in Act Two.
Which is only appropriate, because we're the ones being tutored. The writer exposing the dumb broad to editorials and museums and art is the playwright's stand-in: Kanin isn't showing only Billie how much fun learning things can be -- he's showing us, too. Our country's good, but it's only as good as the people (and thinking, informed voters) in it. With Ankrom and Lang, learning seems not useless but invigorating.
Still, Born Yesterday doesn't shy away from heavier matters -- like domestic violence, with Harry Brock prowling about like a lesser Stanley Kowalski. In fact, Kanin's comedy brings up a lot of associations, all of them good ones: All My Sons for the wartime corruption, My Fair Lady for the Galatea-figure's intellectual make-over. In fact, here in the twilight of the failed Bush administration, Kanin's comedic paean to democracy is something all voting Americans ought to see in a theater, just for the up-close intensity that a live performance affords.
Like Billie, if we start educating ourselves, we just might throw a revolution. First we'll read a book, and then we'll throw da bums out -- all of 'em. Right on their corrupt little keisters.