There's probably not a funnier five minutes in the history of film than Judy Holliday playing gin in Born Yesterday. As the quintessential dizzy blonde Billie Dawn, Holliday first created this comedic masterpiece on Broadway, and then won an Oscar in 1950.
She was forever typecast as a ditz (even with a reported IQ of 176), and because she died so young, at 43, she is not nearly as well known as she should be.
So playwright Willy Holtzman gets a big hand for bringing her back to life with Smart Blonde, a world premiere commissioned by City Theatre.
Here Holliday is in a recording studio cutting an album. As she rehearses, she moves in and out of memories which — via the magic of live theater — are acted out for us.
From Holliday's beginnings with Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein through her stage and film triumphs, her ordeal with the Hollywood blacklist and a couple of romantic relationships, Holtzman covers a lot of ground in this 90-minute play.
Perhaps too much. It isn't surprising to learn the Holtzman wrote a Holliday biography in 1979: This play is overloaded with incident, but without enough time to explore any of it. Everything is here and it's like having very talented people read you a Wikipedia entry. Since much of it is standard show-biz fare (nobody becomes star, loses husband, dies tragically), Holtzman might think about focusing on what was unique to Holliday — specifically, being a brilliant woman who hated playing dumb but was forced to do so in front of a Senate committee to escape being blacklisted. That episode seems key to what Holtzman is trying to say with the play, but it's almost glossed over in the telling.
Peter Flynn's direction is bursting with energy and movement. Jonathan Brody and Adam Heller, a protean duo, play all the people in Holliday's life, and Andréa Burns brings an enormous amount of charm, humor and intelligence to the title role. There's a great story to be got from Holliday's life and I urge Holtzman to continue with his noble quest.