at South Coast Repertory
Like Yul Brynner's King or Carol Channing's Dolly, Billie Dawn is indelibly stamped with Judy Holliday's Broadway- and Hollywood imprint, so it is a clever actor who can fill those impressive shoes. Jennifer Lyon does just that in this revival of Garson Kanin's delightful 1946 comedy. By the time Harry Brock (Richard Ziman), her crass and boorish junk-dealer companion, says, "We're in a whole lotta trouble on account of a dame reads a book," we've discovered Kanin's intention to spotlight the excesses of those who use money to buy influence.
When Harry and Billie arrive in Washington to drum up business for Harry's grandiose ambitions, he realizes she won't be able to hold her own in society, so he hires reporter Paul Verrall (Paul Morgan Stetler) to give her class and a crash course in politics. Though you have to take on faith that Verrall could become smitten immediately with this chorine who thinks that her two mink coats are the pinnacle of high living, the charming nostalgia of the wide-eyed blonde toppling the self-styled "mug and a redneck" is satisfying.
Capably rounding out the main roles are Richard Doyle as Harry's well-toasted lawyer and Hal Landon Jr. as the morally bankrupt but rather subdued Sen. Hedges. Making the most of the part of Harry's go-to man is Alan Blumenfeld, with little to say but lots of attitude.
Director Warner Shook fine-tunes this story with echoes of its past successes but adds an edgy cruelty to Ziman's bluster that speaks more of today's realism. His Billie has practiced coquetry that continually battles with her increasing awareness of the nature of Harry's underhanded machinations. Shook knows when to rein in and when to have fun. The famous scene in which Billie plays gin with Harry is particularly delicious. Production elements are outstanding: Michael Ganio's elegant set, Jim Ragland's compositions and sound design, and colorful costumes by Frances Kenny.
Kanin understood that social awareness is more easily swallowed with a tablespoon of comedy, so revisiting his classic still makes for provocative theatre. Though the Harry Brocks of this world are savvier, they're still out there.
Presented by and at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Tue. 7:30 p.m., Wed.-Fri. 8 p.m. Sat. 2:30 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21-Nov. 20. (714) 708-5555.
Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann