Born Yesterday
ACT Theatre
Through July 17.

A perfectly civilized production of a more or less civilized play, Born Yesterday is an amusing middlebrow riff on government corruption. Garson Kanin basically rewrote Pygmalion by way of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and came up with a plot about the political education of a ditzy chorus girl that lets the audience root for the underdog and openly mock her too. You can read contemporary content into the script if you like—the opening-night audience guffawed and whooped like at lines like "You've got all the oil, all the lumber, all the coal—what do you want now?" But the satire isn't the skewering kind: Your Republican grandma would probably close her eyes and think of Lincoln.

Richard Ziman plays Harry Brock, an uncouth junkyard titan who hates wearing shoes but doesn't mind wooing politicians, especially when they're up for sale, like Senator Hedges (David Pichette). Harry has set up shop in a Washington, D.C. hotel suite with all the nouveau-riche trappings (slickly designed by Robert A. Dahlstrom) to rally support for a few nefarious mergers. Harry drags along his dumb-blonde (or should that be tabula-rasa?) mistress, Billie Dawn (the exuberant Jennifer Lyon), and his bedraggled lawyer, Ed Devery (R. Hamilton Wright). When it becomes clear that Billie Dawn's idiocy is going to get in the way of Harry's plan for world domination—she has zero decorum—Harry hires a journalist named Paul Verrall (Paul Morgan Stetler) to teach her the ways of government. Verrall may be ethical, but he's also a red-blooded American male, and Billie Dawn's curves prove ample bait. Soon enough, Billie Dawn fills her head with Thomas Paine, learns some sass to go with her ass, goes from indignant to idealistic, and bites the crook that keeps her.

This production has a faint whiff of preservative about it, as though director Warner Shook was so anxious about the play's admittedly dated idealism (it premiered in 1946) that he asked his cast to play their characters in quotation marks. This is probably a smart choice, though, because the show's politics aren't particularly complex. In the absence of a challenging political thesis, Shook plants unexpected laughs where there might have been only creaky optimism. The effect is mildly cartoonish, and so is Seideez Gracey-Lee, the puffy little dog who's trotted out every half-hour or so. Dogs on stage generally feel unpredictable; they make the audience nervous and giggly. But Seideez Gracey-Lee looks like a drawing of a dog, and plops wherever she's put, with a preternatural serenity that looks like the product of drugs or hypnotism.

Don't get me wrong—there is life in the show. The script is only modestly amusing, and if I were reading it on paper, I certainly wouldn't have laughed when Harry asks Billie Dawn to define "peninsula," and she responds haughtily, "It's that new medicine!" But Richard Ziman is outrageously offensive, and Jennifer Lyon gets so triumphantly puffed up and wiggly about Billie Dawn's new arsenal of knowledge that when the poor girl botches a fact, you'll laugh despite yourself. I have a feeling that the play intends for us to channel our proudest affections to her tutor, the virtuous journalist. As much as I wanted to love the newspaperman, though, Paul Morgan Stetler shrinks a little too nobly. With idealism that heavy, you've got to have the charisma to prop it up, and Stetler's performance whimpers toward the end, in deference to Lyon's boldness.

The rest of the cast is spiked with Seattle favorites, and they deliver. For a man who spouts clichés like they're, um, going out of style (the bromides "a little learning is a dangerous thing" and "knowledge is power" are especially apt), R. Hamilton Wright's sad little lawyer is remarkably heartwarming. After David Pichette executes some audience-pleasing flourishes as the assistant hotel manager in an obvious toupee (the audience ate this up), he settles into a nice, slightly bewildered performance as the corrupt senator.

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As long as you can get through the slow exposition (the play is front-loaded with bit characters and Billie Dawn doesn't appear for an unforgivably long time), and the fact that Mayor Greg Nickels just declared June 29 ACT Theatre Day (kind of creepy, no?), Born Yesterday is funny, absorbing, and not particularly taxing. It's like a Miss America contest—happy to aspire to world peace, but cheerfully unconcerned about how we're going to get there. ■

annie@thestranger.com