`Born Yesterday' Again Blending Romantic and Political Comedy. Kahn and Asner star in revival of Garson Kanin's play. THEATER: REVIEW

By , John Beaufort covers New York theater for the Monitor.

BORN YESTERDAY Comedy by Garson Kanin. Directed by Josephine R. Abady. Starring Edward Asner, Madeline Kahn. Production supervised by John Tillinger. IN 1946, ``Born Yesterday'' made Broadway stars of Judy Holliday, a revue and night club performer in her second stage role, and Paul Douglas, an actor best known as a radio announcer. It ran for 1,642 performances.

Four decades later, Garson Kanin's smart romantic political comedy returns to New York as a starring vehicle for Ed Asner of TV fame and Madeline Kahn, a comedienne whose credits cover the performance spectrum.

The result is a thoroughly rewarding entertainment, which honors its period sources and proves far from irrelevant in 1989.

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The action takes place in a Washington hotel suite (costing $235 a day!). It is September, 1945. Harry Brock (Mr. Asner), accompanied by his blond chorus-girl mistress Billie Dawn (Miss Kahn), has come to the nation's capital to consummate a deal that requires a suspect congressional amendment to cover its shadier aspects.

An American junk king with his eyes on global markets, Harry soon realizes that Billie is going to need some polishing if she is to move easily among even bought-and-paid-for politicians.

Recycling the Pygmalion tale, Mr. Kanin has Harry hire Paul Verrall (Daniel Hugh Kelly), a New Republic contributor who has come to interview the tycoon, to supervise the intellectual dawning of a new Billie.

There follows not only the inevitable romance but Billie's realization that Harry's latest project is positively ``anti-social'' (a newly acquired phrase). Miss Kahn plays Billie with a delectable blend of naivet'e, candor, and intellectual curiosity. She can (in one of the play's most hilarious scenes) beat Harry hollow at gin rummy.

WHEN he demands who she is to give an unsolicited low opinion of his new Washington friends, Billie replies: ``I'm myself, that's who!'' With her suitably New Yorky speech and unflappable ladylike manner, Miss Kahn's Billie is always herself.

Casting Mr. Asner as Harry adds to the junk man's weight and age. Clearly he must have progressed, or retrogressed, from the 30-plus parvenu described in the Kanin script.

Mr. Asner barks, bellows, and bullies his way through the role, the image of a man who, as his lawyer observes, has ``always lived at the top of his voice.'' The co-star makes sure that this Harry would give crudity a bad name.

As directed by Josephine R. Abady in a production supervised by John Tillinger, the company at the 46th Street Theatre responds enthusiastically to the Kanin comedy.

Besides Mr. Kelly's personable liberal, the principals include Franklin Cover as Harry's bibulous lawyer, John Wylie as compliant Senator Hedges, Peggy Cosgrave as Mrs. Hedges, and Joel Bernstein as Harry's scurrying errand-boy relative.

Scene designer David Potts has placed the hotel suite of the shady dealings within the shadow of the Capitol. Jeff Davis's lighting provides, on occasion, its own illuminating comment on the proceedings, and Ann Roth has costumed the production appropriately, with special attention to Harry's double-breasted chalk-striped suits.

The revival originated at the Cleveland Play House, where Miss Abady is artistic director.

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