As the World Spirals Into Chaos, I Go to the Theatre

First of all: few things are as spectacularly wonderful as going to a fancy event with a dirty secret, and heading out to Broadway’s utterly gorgeous Cort Theatre, massive red velvet curtain, beautifully painted ceiling, opera boxes and all, was easily fancy enough to make the Birdlocked under my clothes feel thrillingly illicit.  Rosebud was in high style, looking as lushly sexy as I’d ever seen her, and to be under lock and key among the swells was BONER FUEL.

Like this. But the rocket is a penis, and the fire is...I don't know what the fire is.

But enough about me getting off on  cheap, sick thrills.  On to me getting off on politics!

"I rim for votes." James Buchanan, you fucking scamp.

It seems fitting that in the days leading up to a possible government shutdown (which may or may not be solved by the time I finish writing this article) I found myself in a position to attend the new Broadway production of Garson Kanin’s priceless 1946 comedy Born Yesterday.  It’s a favorite of mine, with a classic screwball premise: Harry Brock (James Belushi), a rich, bullying New Jersey scrap merchant, arrives in Washington with his drunk, dim-bulb moll, Billie Dawn (Nina Arianda), in tow.  Brock’s there to buy out a senator who will push massive deregulation, allowing him to do deals in a Europe that’s still in tatters from WW2.  Billie, though, proves a roadblock: she’s crass, loud and very hard to control.  Her social ineptitude so worries Brock that he hires a highbrow journalist, Paul Verrall (Robert Sean Leonard), to educate her.  A little knowledge, as everyone knows, is a dangerous thing, and Billie’s education drags Brock’s life into chaos as she begins to understand (and question) democracy, money and power.  She’s also beginning to take a liking to Verrall, a dangerous proposition when you’re on Harry Brock’s arm.

It’s simple, diagrammatic and perfectly turned by Kanin, whose knack for finding poetry in the inarticulate is second to none.  Doug Hughes’ handsome, well-mounted production is  still in previews, so I can’t say too much about it, nor about my connection to it, so I’ll keep this part brief: it’s old-fashioned in the best way, and if it doesn’t make a star out of the sexy, funny, utterly beguiling Arianda, I’ll be shocked.  The other two leads are great value as well, Leonard charming and dry, and Belushi a bit of a revelation.  On the evidence of this, I’ll have to take him off of the “Jesus God In No Possible World Will I Ever Watch Something With This Toolbag In It” list.  He’s fucking GOOD.

If you desire him, render his mating cry: "Beluuuuuuuuuuuush!"

The reasons the play resonated with me so much, especially watching it at this point in history, are manifold.  First of all, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about feminism, as readers will know.  Born Yesterday is, despite its antiquity, pretty fucking strong as a proto-feminist piece: initially seen as a piece of arm candy and kind of a moron, Billie Dawn reveals hidden depths and a canny intellect.  Admittedly, this is under the tutelage of a man, but Billie is the engine that drives the second half of the play, her machinations and desires proving stronger than Brock’s endless fortune.  A kept woman, she finally decides who she wants to be with and what she wants to do.  Kanin gives Billie dialogue about as funny as anything ever put to paper, and Arianda nails every laugh down to the commas, but what this production and performance really put into stark relief for me is the way that a repressive male system strangles female liberation by force and deprivation.  Billie is constantly sent to her room, insulted to her face, even slapped (a moment that may not have played as heavily on its debut, but REALLY put the shits up the audience at the Cort), but she glides through it all, drunk and switched off.  She’s numb to the indignity of it all, accepting that her place is on a powerful man’s arm.  What other opportunities are there for a former chorine?  She has fits of rebellion (stubbornness, flirtation, and an almost terrifying aptitude for beating Harry at cards), but they’re only taken seriously inasmuch as they endanger Harry’s Washington business.  She’s treated as a device for sex and not much else, and she’s not questioning her role, really.

The beautiful irony is that Verrall’s education of Billie, initially part of a plan to make her more acceptable and compliant, shakes her awake.  It’s largely against her will.  But once she begins to read, think, research, it becomes clear to her: she has a place in this world that demands active participation.  She takes to it with a vengeance, and the conclusion is a gratifying example of a female hero having her cake and eating it, too.  Billie may be running off with Verrall at the end, but he’s a man of quality who doesn’t take her for granted.  She wins because she realizes she’s worth a damn, and she really is.  It’s a Kanin special, a unique mix of cynicism and wide-eyed hope.

This extends to the politics of the thing, which is the other big reason I was so smitten.  It’s a transparently liberal play, political in broad strokes, but it’s almost unnerving how relevant it is now.  This may be due to the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same (Bob Roberts has a similarly eerie resonance), but it’s still surprising when a 65 year-old play talks about the dangers of deregulation.  Kanin’s play, hilarious and fleet on the surface, finally blossoms into full-blown outrage when the extent of Brock’s disregard for process and civility is revealed.  The play near-explodes with its keening love for real, functional democracy.  Kanin wants to show the beauty of the system: that every vote counts, that the government really is US, and if we get involved, we can affect positive change.  I’ve always believed this, and I also think that the only reason the Tea Party is running so hurtfully amok in Washington is because they got involved, loudly.

"Lower my taxes, don't give healthcare to the poor, and GET ME MY FUCKING SNUGGLEBEAR!"

It’s a heartening message in any case, all the more poignant as partisan ideology brings us to the brink of government just….stopping.  As of writing, the one thing holding up budget negotiations is the Republicans’ insistence that all federal funding to Planned Parenthood be immediately yanked.  Seriously.  That’s it.  Thousands of seniors will go without hot meals.  Military payroll will freeze.  It will hurt America in so many hundreds of ways if this shutdown is effected, and I want everyone reading this to remember one thing: if it happens, it’s because there are rich assholes in Washington who want to erase, little by little, every piece of progressive legislation going back to the New Deal.  They want women to sit down and shut up.  They want gays to stay second class citizens.  They want corporations to run your healthcare.  They want you to think that you’re powerless.

Don’t buy it.  Make like Billie Dawn.  Read up, get informed and get moving.  ASK QUESTIONS.  In Wisconsin, recall elections are happening in the wake of a ghastly piece of Republican anti-union legislation.  I’d be willing to bet that an awful lot of voters don’t even know that they have the power to recall.  Millions are standing up for Planned Parenthood, for NPR, for all of the tiny little bricks that the GOP want to chip out of the wall.  Stand up with them.

The Tea Partiers have this abstract notion of “spending.”  It’s bad, it’s wrong, we want LESS of it. How many have really contemplated how their lives are affected by that spending?  No EPA?  Great!  No Department of Education?  Fine!  Social Security? Privatize it!  Medicare, Medicaid?  Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut.  No more Planned Parenthood.  How DARE my tax dollars be spent on ABORTIONS?

Except that the EPA is acting to save our environment, which, contrary to what you may have heard, is affected by pollution.  The Department of Ed is working to genuinely improve conditions for our country’s students.  Every available model says that privatizing Social Security would be calamitous.  Medicare and Medicaid help so many older or impaired citizens that cutting to the extent that the GOP are demanding would be inhumane.  And Planned Parenthood?  Whether you like abortions or not, they also do breast exams, pap smears, GENERAL WOMEN’S HEALTH.

This shit is important.

Make cuts, absolutely.  We need to tighten the national belt.  But if you want government revenue to bump up, stop giving tax cuts to the wealthy.  Like Harry Brock, the millionaires and billionaires of this country have proven that if you give them enough rope, they’ll hang YOU.  It isn’t trickling down.  There aren’t more domestic jobs being created.  Fuck it, look at the MATH.


It was awfully nice to come out of a classic play so fired up.

And in the last few minutes, it seems a deal has been struck to continue funding (at least temporarily) our government.  The Planned Parenthood rider will be up for a vote on the Senate floor, where it will, rest assured, die.  As will the rider defunding health care reform.

The good guys may not always win, but the bad guys don’t always get what they want.

This is a country full of Billie Dawns, male and female, intellects just waiting to be switched on and fired up.

Many of them are super-foxy blondes. TRUE.

Get involved.



About Bastard Keith

Bastard Keith is the quadruple threat singer-host-performer-writer who can be seen providing his uniquely volatile charm to burlesque shows, saucy readings and theatrical stages around New York City. Keith is a liberal, a Taurus, an atheist, and a married man. But he can still make out if Madame Rosebud says it's all right, so never be afraid to ask.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to As the World Spirals Into Chaos, I Go to the Theatre

  1. Pete says:

    You use your mouth (or in this case, keyboard) prettier than a $20 whore.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>