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'Born Yesterday' revival has stellar cast

Kim Belushi and Nina Arianda in "Born Yesterday."

Kim Belushi and Nina Arianda in "Born Yesterday." Credit: AP / Richard Kornberg & Associates (undated)

The obvious purpose of reviving "Born Yesterday" is to make Nina Arianda, Off-Broadway's blazing new comet, into a great big Broadway star. A collateral benefit is to lure back Robert Sean Leonard, theater treasure, and introduce him to people who think they know everything about him from watching "House."

All that good stuff happens in Doug Hughes' larky, lavish, first-rate production of Garson Kanin's smart and smart-mouthed comedy, indelibly stamped by Judy Holliday on Broadway in 1946 and in Hollywood in 1950.

But the surprise -- perhaps the biggest who-knew? of this star-cast season -- is Jim Belushi. Despite his early stage work and TV success, it was hard to see his role here as more than a magnet for summer tourists.

Not so fast. Belushi, as Harry the junkyard Jersey millionaire who buys friends in Washington, is splendid -- fun to watch without trying to be lovable. He makes us understand what Billie Dawn, his moll and ex-chorine, sees in him. But the danger in him is real.

The play is part "Snooki Comes to Washington," part "Pygmalion." Without a fabulously clever ditz in the tootsie role, however, this can be just a familiar old vehicle that confronts power ethics with the innocence of a sweet old civics lesson.

And Arianda is fabulously clever -- just for starters. The actress, a multilevel wow as an auditioning actress/dominatrix last year in "Venus in Fur," is not a conventional beauty. But her nervous and hormone systems are so hotwired with theatrical talent and savvy that a gawky wiggle becomes an erotic money shot and a curled lip seems plain adorable in un-plain ways.

Leonard, an expert in heart-crushingly poetic characters by Stoppard and O'Neill, may be overqualified as the brainy journalist and Billie's tutor. If so, the actor doesn't let on as he tosses off light comedy with a dashing, nerdy elegance.

Each character in the big cast has been impeccably cast, notably Frank Wood as the disillusioned crooked lawyer. John Lee Beatty's luxe suite -- midnight blue with flourishes like meringue -- is a star on its own, while Catherine Zuber's costumes make comedy a detail of high style.

Sixty-five years later, play-for-pay business deals are still a part of Washington. On Broadway, at least, someone got it right.

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