MTC’s 2017 season opens with the glamorous 1940s screwball comedy Born Yesterday, an apposite choice made six months ago when it looked likely that Hillary Clinton would take out the presidency, and even more relevant in the aftermath of the Trump inauguration.
Born Yesterday is a Broadway classic – written in 1946 by Garson Kanin, it was immortalised on the silver screen by George Cukor in 1950 and has been a popular production ever since. It’s vintage Broadway with hints of Pygmalion when a belligerent junkyard tycoon, Harry Brock, come to town for the sole purpose of bribing Senators and making money. While conducting his nefarious business he moves into a ritzy Washington hotel suite. He has no political interest or affiliation; he’s there to play in the big leagues and get what he wants (sound like someone else we know?). He brings with him Billie Dawn, an ex-chorus singer and his mistress. Billie isn’t educated or classy enough to swing with the big boys and so Brock hires the geeky reporter down the hall, Paul Verral, to smooth out those rough edges. Two months in and Billie’s a new woman, scrawling words (‘pertaining’, ‘constituents’) on a blackboard and reading David Copperfield. She’s smarter.
It’s a predictable love story with the familiar (and condescending) Legally Blonde-esque ditz to wonder woman trope that 21st century sensibilities will cringe at, but it’s also an irreverent commentary on idealism, realpolitik, and corruption. Director Dean Bryant is constantly aware of the similarities to real-world politics, but he refuses to muddle the story to labour similarities between Brock and Trump – they’re there and we see them.
Christie Whelan Browne is captivating as Billie – warm, charming and graceful. Her sense of comic timing is astounding (especially for someone who received no formal training), and really brings the production to life. Every gesture is infused with charm: the way she shuffles cards at Gin Rummy, the ‘ssssss’ sound she makes to express her frustration, pouring herself whiskey. She steals the spotlight in every scene.
While Joel Jackson plays a boyish and awkward Paul Verral (constantly wiping down his chairs and smoking cigarettes like he’s make believing at being a grown up), he’s not much of a leading man and is outshone by Russell Dykstra’s loudmouth and surprisingly subtle depiction of Harry Brock. He is at once arrogant, cunning, brutal, crass and misogynist (the Trumpian similarities reaching an all time high when he makes a grab for Billie’s crotch). But Dykstra also brings a measure of vulnerability to the role, preventing it from becoming too hammy.
Dale Ferguson’s sumptuous set design also deserves a mention. He’s crafted an elegant, two-level set, complete with sweeping staircase, window and a balcony overlooking the Washington Monument – a silent reminder of the democratic system (and therefore, the people), Brock is looking to cheat.
While some modernising to the script would have been nice to avoid the patronising and patriarchal overtones, Born Yesterday is nonetheless a vivid and engaging performance, full of laughter and vitality.
Melbourne Theatre Company
Closes 25 February 2017