Left – Russel Dykstra and Christie Whelan Browne. Cover – Richard Piper, Tyler Coppin, Heidi Arena, Chris Fortuna and Christie Whelan Browne. Photos – Jeff Busby
The timing couldn’t be better. As Donald Trump prepares to take his place in the White House, Melbourne Theatre Company brings back the 1946 comedy by Garson Kanin, Born Yesterday, in which bullying tycoon Harry Brock, rich from the spoils of World War II, arrives in Washington DC to grease the palms of politicians. His mistress, ex-chorus girl Billie Dawn, accompanies him there, but proves to be an embarrassment. Harry decides to educate this seemingly dumb blonde to improve his status, and enlists the help of a reporter, Paul Verrell.
The play was written by all-rounder Kanin, an actor, comedian and musician who directed the original Broadway production, a hit that ran for four years, propelling its leading lady, Judy Holliday, to stardom. George Cukor’s film version came out in 1950 with Holliday still in the role of Billie. The writing is witty, incisive and timeless, a gift for comedians and actors. It is also a comment on American values and democracy, and a call to the individual to stand up against corruption.
In this MTC production, directed by Dean Bryant, the play loses nothing of its original sparkle, or its political relevance. The American accents are faultless, the stage set – a luxurious hotel suite – and costumes perfect, and the cast of eight superb. Three of the versatile actors – Richard Piper, Heidi Arena and Josh Gates take on multiple roles with comic flair and physicality.
Billie Dawn, a glorious character, has the best one-liners in the play. Christie Whelan Browne relishes them all. She reprises Judy Holliday’s performance, with the same high-pitched little-girl voice, but makes the role her own with impeccable comic timing and pertinent pauses. And she knows how to pour herself into a 1940s sheath dress, drive the men wild, play dumb, and kick ass. An adorable, but formidable Billie.
As her loud-mouthed companion, Harry Brock, Russell Dykstra bursts on to the stage in a cloud of testosterone, self-importance and stupidity. Dykstra is thin-lipped and sneering, borrowing heavily from Robert de Niro’s gangsters, permanently on the edge of explosion. Dykstra builds the energy to moments of monstrous rage. Yet this actor can turn it all around in a moment. At the beginning of Act Two, his retinue has gone and he is alone with Billie, playing cards. His body language has changed. Unguarded, half-dressed, he slumps in his chair, watching the woman he adores. A complex performance.
Joel Jackson plays the reporter Paul Verrell as a nerd, anxious, obsessive and romantic, but uses his trump card, his intelligence, against Harry’s bullying. The verbal sparring between the two characters is hilarious. The lawyer, Ed Devery, is played by Tyler Coppin, in a powerful and subtle portrayal of a man who is not cowed by Harry, but tries to make him see sense, until he gives up and turns to drink. And what a drunk – brilliant! Chris Fortuna completes the cast as Eddie Brock, Harry’s side-kick, with comic aplomb.
MTC has started 2017 with a bang. In Born Yesterday, MTC’s newly appointed Associate Director Dean Bryant, has drawn out some superb performances and orchestrated them to fine comic effect. This is drama and entertainment at its best. Let’s hope the comic relief keeps coming as an antidote to the political tragedy on the world stage.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Garson Kanin
Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
Dates: 14 January – 25 February 2017
Times: Mon/Tues 6.30pm; Wed 1pm & 8pm; Thurs/Fri 8pm; Sat 4pm & 8.30pm.
Duration: 2 hour, 30 mins
Tickets $39 – 121
Bookings: www.mtc.com.au | 03 8688 0800