Monday, April 25, 2011

Nina Arianda, Show Stealer

When the show curtain rises at the current Broadway revival of Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday, there are gasps and applause for John Lee Beatty's delectable hotel room set. Nina Arianda proceeds to wipe that set floor with everyone on it. Anyone who saw Arianda in Venus in Fur, knew they were seeing a star in the making. Now the 25-year-old delivers another unforgettable performance in her Broadway debut (her name is already above the title).

Arianda plays former chorus girl Billie Dawn in the 1946 comedy. Billie and her junk tycoon boyfriend Harry Brock (Jim Belushi) are new to Washington, D.C. so that Brock can get richer by working some shady deals with a senator (Terry Beaver), the details of which are hard to follow, but it's really only necessary to understand the basic gist. Brock thinks that Billie is too dumb to make a good impression on Washington types, so he hires reporter Paul Verrall (Robert Sean Leonard) to educate her.

The play gets off to a slow start, especially since there is a lot of talk between Brock and his lawyer Ed Devery (Frank Wood, in a role not dissimilar to the one he played in Angels in America earlier this season), but once Arianda shows up, the pace really picks up. From her distinctive nasally voice and laugh to facial expressions that seem vacant, but don't betray the fire that Billie has underneath, every choice Arianda makes is the right one. In one of the best scenes, Billie and Brock play a card game, and suffice it to say it's best to keep your eyes on Arianda at all times. Though she deserves a lot of the credit, so does her director, Doug Hughes. If her co-stars don't make as much of an impression, it's only because her performance is such a tour de force, but that's not to say that she isn't ably supported. Belushi balances the humor of Brock's ignorance with a temper that leaves the audience slightly on edge about what he is capable of. Leonard is the perfect straight man in the least showy role. The only thing missing is more chemistry between Leonard and Arianda.

Kanin's script still draws big laughs, especially from Billie's one-liners. (For example, "This country and its institutions belong to the people who inhibit it.") The show holds up, not only because sleazy bargains and corrupt politicians will always exist, but because a well-constructed comedy with a talented leading lady will always entertain.

Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

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