When is the combination of a near-perfect cast, a sexy, talented lead, gorgeous costumes and a gifted director not enough?

Answer: When the combination just doesn't work.

OK, here's the bad news:

As flat as a Betty Boop cartoon with too much Boop and not enough bop, College of Marin's production of Garson Kanin's "Born Yesterday," which had its opening Friday, lumbers across the stage like an elephantine elephant with, uh É elephantitis.

Decked out in beige.

Now, here's the good news:

They still may be only a couple of performances away from a pretty good show.

Can somebody please tell me what went wrong? By anyone's reckoning, director Jeffrey Bihr should have had a hit show on his hands, not a comic strip musical without the tunes. What with a Washington, D.C., sex scandal in today's headlines and mid-term elections only a month away, this class-sex comedy about corruption on Capital Hill couldn't be timelier - especially one that also takes on such subjects as the intellectual subjugation of women, economic fascism and emotional tyranny.

Indeed, the post-World War II Washington of "Born Yesterday" is not that different from the nation's capital of today in one key regard: The changing America that it governs appears to be up for grabs

In this, Kanin's retelling of the "Pygmalion" tale, it could be said that patriotism is the last refuge of, wellÉ the gun moll of a scoundrel.

The plot concerns one Harry Brock (Martino Pistone), a tough-talking, senator-bribing scrap metal baron who comes to Washington with his brassy, uncouth mistress Billie (Heather Gordon) in tow. A self-made millionaire, he moves into a swank hotel suite to bribe a senator (Michael-Paul Thomsett) in order to expand his empire.

When "dumb-blonde" Billie, whom Harry genuinely adores, becomes a social liability, he hires Paul Verrall (Chad Yarish), a well-read liberal reporter, to teach her some social graces and a little bit of book-learnin'.

Conflict arises when, enlightened by the writings of Charles Dickens and Thomas Paine, Billie is transformed into a bespectacled, whistle-blowing free thinker, much to the horror of Harry and his co-conspirator, a disillusioned drunkard and former district attorney, Ed Devery (Ron Lanza). This becomes further complicated when grasshopper falls for guru.

OK, first things first: Heather Gordon's Billie. Time and again, Gordon has proved herself to be a terrific actress. A couple of years ago, in a scene from "A Streetcar Named Desire" at Marin Classic Theater, Gordon's Stella cradled the head of her Stanley like Michelangelo's "Pieta." In the recent "Pomp and Circumstance" at EXIT Theatre she demonstrated uncanny comic skill, simultaneously conveying lust and repulsion in a hilarious courtroom scene. Clearly, she has the acting chops.

Perfectly cast as Billie, the hair is right; the clothes (beautifully designed by Patricia Polen) are right; the requisite Brooklynese honk and trombone growl, the coquettish double-takes - even the overly indulged Mae West wiggle - are all just about right. So why doesn't Gordon's Billie work?

There's a lack of sexual chemistry between Gordon and her romantic lead. Here, again, lies another mystery: Yarish, in past performances, has sailed across the stage like a rakish Errol Flynn (RVP's "Room Service") and has demonstrated inspired physical comedy (COM's "A Gown for His Mistress"). For some inconceivable reason, here he has chosen to play Verrall with a robotic gait of a floorwalker. Where is the handsome, tweedy charm required for the role? Is he trying to look like Christopher Reeves' Clark Kent? The result is that Billie's sudden attraction appears ludicrous.

Also necessary is at least some kind of chemistry between Billie and Brock. Here again, with the talented Pistone, we have a skilled actor who is physically perfect for the role, who has all the means at his disposal to give a layered performance. Brock is a bully, to be sure, but there has to be something likable about him. For Brock to work, we need to see all the nuances of his love for Billie, as well as his ferocity. That requires sexual chemistry or else Brock is a cartoon.

Another problem may have been Mikiko Uesugi's gigantic, cockeyed set, dominated by a bland shade of beige. Was anyone else bothered by a second floor view of the Capitol dome that placed actors and audience below sea level - in a penthouse suite? Plus, the sheer size of the thing seemed to slow things down. Bihr, an expert farceur, has acquitted himself in the past with exquisitely timed, door-slamming trouser-droppers that rarely missed a beat. Here, the action drags while the audience waits for actors to travel from one door slam to the next - making the pace as hollow as footfalls on wooden floor.

The supporting cast, likewise, has all the potential it needs, with the glaring exception of a weary-sounding Ron Lanza as Devery. Thomsett's Sen. Hedges captures the Capra-like feel of the period quite nicely and Robyn Wiley comports herself admirably in the small role of the senator's wife. Indeed, Wiley got one of the biggest laughs of the evening with her takes of prim horror at the back-slapping Brock - though she, like the rest, could have taken it further.

All this cast really needs is the kind of spring-heeled snap of classic movies from the 1940s. Maybe all they really need is a double espresso before they go on. Granted, this is a student production, but then the College of Marin has long held a reputation for presenting unusually professional semi-professional shows - and must be held to its own standard.

Marin theatergoers are a sophisticated lot who have come to expect more from local favorites - especially when a cast is so close, so close. We expect more than two dimensions from actors like these; we will not be fooled by "almost there."

I was born in the morning, but not this morning.

Mark Langton can be reached at mark.langton@comcast.net.


What: "Born Yesterday," by Garson Kanin

When: Through Oct. 22. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays 2 p.m. Oct. 15 and 22

Where: Fine Arts Theater, Kentfield campus, College of Marin, 835 College Ave., Kentfield

Tickets: $12 to $15

Information: 485-9555 or www.collegeofmarin.com

Rated: Two stars out of five