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NY Theater Reviews

Jim Belushi and Nina Arianda/ Ph: Caroll Rosegg

THE GENIUS OF BILLIE

By MATT WINDMAN

While Doug Hughes’ production is more old-fashioned than one would hope, the performances couldn’t be more thrilling. 

George Cukor’s 1950 film version of Garson Kanin’s 1946 comedy Born Yesterday has proven to be both a blessing and a curse for the original play. Since Judy Holliday’s star-making stage performance was immortalized in the film, it has been generally assumed that the show doesn’t need a major revival.  
 
But Holliday was also in the film version of Bells Are Ringing, and that hasn’t stopped producers from reviving that musical comedy. Kanin’s play deserves a second look with a new cast, especially since its theme of corruption in big business and politics couldn’t be timelier.
 
The screwball comedy, which also has some serious elements, centers on the relationship between corrupt junk dealer Harry Brock (Jim Belushi) and his quirky, blonde bombshell mistress Billie Dawn (Nina Arianda).
 
Harry, who is settling down in Washington in order to champion new legislation that would significantly increase his profits, decides that he needs to make Billie more presentable and less crass. 
 
In a My Fair Lady kind of twist, he enlists clean-cut reporter Paul Verrall (Robert Sean Leonard) to educate her. But in doing so, Billie loses her blissful ignorance and gains the confidence to question Harry’s duplicitous dealings and finally leave him.
 
While Doug Hughes’ production comes across as more old-fashioned than one would hope, the performances contained within it couldn’t be better or more thrilling.
 
Arianda gained attention last season as a temptress in Venus in Fur off-Broadway. She delivers a playful and sexy performance that is a joy to watch. Her bits of comedy business range from humming the title song of “Anything Goes” to counting with her toes.
 
Belushi is surprisingly intense as the sloppy, self-centered Harry. In addition to nailing the humor and providing a burly presence, he highlights the character’s dangerous and abusive qualities.
 
Other standouts in the cast include Leonard, Michael McGrath and Frank Wood. Also worthy of mention is John Lee Beatty’s spectacular hotel room set.