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Mr. Pygmalion goes to Washington. In Garson Kanin's 1946 comedy Billie Dawn's the American Eliza Doolittle. Billie was a chorus girl - even had five lines in Anything Goes - when Harry Brock made her his moll. The robber baron gave her mink coats, but when she spoke her mind, he gave her more than lip.

"You're a silent partner," he tells her. "So shut up!"

Brock rules and wants to "run the men who run the country." He moves his entourage into D.C.'s highest-buck hotel: room 67B costs $235 a day. He pays Paul Verrall, writer for the New Republic, to tutor Billie, "smarten her up a little," so she won't embarrass him at social gatherings.

Brock assumes Paul will make some cosmetic changes: get her to converse more politely; put more "couth" in her wardrobe from the In Bad Taste Collection at Sak's 5.

Instead, Paul has her reading Tom Paine and nurtures her inner muckraker. In two months' time, she's listening to Sibelius, correcting her grammar, and able to recognize a fascist when she sees one - i.e. Brock.

Kanin wrote the play as a star vehicle for Jean Arthur. When she became ill during the Boston tryout, Judy Holliday went on stage an unknown, came back a star, and gave hope to every aspiring actor ever since.

Born Yesterday was Kanin's first play, and it shows. The craft is shaky. Except for Billie, the characters are one-note, one trait beings; scenes need compression; and it preaches.

Kanin makes a key point, albeit with a bullhorn: World War II is over, but instead of promised change, the powers that were are even more so. If a "dumb blonde" like Billie can change and grow, the playwright insists, so can the country.

Moonlight Stage's production begins with a phone that barely rings and, later, phonograph music's almost inaudible. Overall the staging has an almost subdued atmosphere when near- (if not over-) the-top shenanigans would help cover Kanin's flaws. it's as if the cast is playing to a 40-seat house instead of a 200-plus.

Marty Burnett's set's a smart cross between classy and garish, the latter due to wide-striped wallpaper and, center-stage, the reddest chairs in North County.

It's a treat to see David Cochran Heath on stage after a year's hiatus. One could wish that Harry Brock, blustering thug, gave him more room for nuance. Brian Mackey's Paul could put more passion into his preaching and his attraction to Billie.

Decked out in Roslyn Lehman and Renetta Lloyd's precise period costumes, always reliable Jim Chovick and Danny Campbell head a competent supporting cast.

The play's a star vehicle. So's Moonlight's show. Jessica John's as adept at comedy as drama. She's a hoot in scene after scene and puts her own stamp on Billie. Her hair's reddish-brown. She eschews the "dumb blonde" stereotype and demonstrates from the start that Billie wasn't dumb, just held back and never encouraged to question anything.

Playing through April 7

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