Dean Bryant brings a classic 1940s screwball comedy to the Melbourne stage, with Christie Whelan Browne starring
When MTC were conceiving a production of Garson Kanin’s 1946 play Born Yesterday, they were fairly certain – like most of the sane world – that Hillary Clinton was going to be taking the oath as 45th President of the USA. It is, of course, impossible to imagine that production now; what we are saddled with is a decidedly Trumpian affair, anxious and cynical. This may be a bad thing for the world, but it makes for a rather fascinating night in the theatre.
Kanin’s play, while very much rooted in a post-war zeitgeist, speaks in intriguing ways to our own time. His characters may all be in various stages of cognisance but none of them can be labelled innocent. Not least Billie Dawn (Christie Whelan Browne), mistress to the vile standover man Harry Brock (Russell Dykstra). Harry has come to Washington to bully and buy his way into congress, not for any political motivation but purely to make more money. Billie, for the price of a couple of mink coats, is happy to sign the cheques and ignore the details.
When Harry decides that Billie is too dumb to pass for respectable in this fancy town, he hires journo Paul Verrall (Joel Jackson) to ‘smooth the edges’ and teach her a thing or two. It doesn’t take long for Billie to realise she may be good at this learning caper, and to fall for the earnest and principled Paul. It takes Harry a little longer to realise Alexander Pope’s truism that “a little learning is a dangerous thing”. It’s as patronising as it sounds, but with a knowing edge and the right performer it starts to feel almost subversive.
Born Yesterday was immortalised on film by George Cukor, with Judy Holliday winning an Oscar for her portrayal of Billie Dawn. Whelan Browne has none of the shoe-filling problems Melanie Griffith faced when she starred in the 1993 remake; it’s as if she were born to play the role, as if in fact it were written for her. She has such grace and warmth, not to mention supernatural comic timing, that it is impossible to look away. Her transformation from passive indifference to moral and intellectual engagement is so credible it threatens to transform the play into a genuine drama.
Dykstra is suitably repulsive as the bullyboy, the man whose money has opened doors but whose personality renders him patently unfit for any kind of society. Tyler Coppin is brilliant as his compromised, not to mention permanently sloshed, lawyer Ed Devery. Jackson is perfectly capable as the smitten pedagogue, and the rest of the cast are uniformly solid (notable mentions to Chris Fortuna as a hangdog heavy and Heidi Arena as an awkward senator’s wife).
Technically, the production is marvellous. Dale Ferguson’s set is a wonder of tasteful decadence and is superbly lit by Matt Scott. Director Dean Bryant handles the shifts of tone with complete assurance, confident enough to park the laughs when the script demands something more weighty and sincere.
There are occasional longueurs – mainly when Whelan Browne has left the stage so the men can pontificate – but these are as much the fault of the play as the production. It sometimes feels like it doesn’t know whether it’s a comedy or a drama, back when the distinctions mattered. (The Golden Globes were also confused, nominating Holliday for best Actress in a comedy and a drama).
In many ways, this confusion is apt: the issues surging through this piece are serious ones, and Kanin thinks seriously about them, but they’re also patently absurd. A gangster’s moll who picks up a book on Thomas Paine, who writes down a few new words on the blackboard – words like anti-social and constituents – cannot possibly shame and cajole a filthy system into massive reform. Can she? As a lesson on the sheer power that education can have over the rock of ignorance and corruption, this play couldn’t come at a better time, and couldn’t be embodied by a better performer. If only we could all wake to this dawn.