A tycoon moves to Washington DC to use his money to influence politics and politicians.
When the Melbourne Theatre Company announced they were staging Garson Kanin’s 1940s political comedy as the opening play of their 2017 season, my interest was focused squarely on Christie Whelan-Browne in the lead role of Billie Dawn. This character cemented the ditzy blonde as an archetype in Hollywood canon when the film version was produced in 1950 with Judy Holliday in the role.
A few months later, as the production opens on the eve of President Trump’s inauguration, the 70-year-old play has some disturbing resonances. Harry Brock, the junkyard tycoon, is a despicable man – angry, violent, delusional. He may not have his sights on political office himself, but he’s in DC because he greased the palms of politicians.
Billie’s story is a simple one of growth; Harry wants her to learn so he’s less embarrassed to have her on his arm at political fundraisers. But a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing, especially when it’s imparted by a handsome man in studious glasses – Paul, played by Joel Jackson.
Even though Billie’s learning-at-the-knee-of-a-tutor feels a bit like Pygmalion, somehow this script is sharper about what knowledge brings. Born Yesterday doesn’t suggest that information and a larger vocabulary makes Billie a better person, but one more prone to worry and sleepless nights. In a play about politics, especially watching it this week, we are keenly aware that the more we know, the more we have to worry about. We could stay ignorant and happy or we could dig a little deeper and have to live with what we learn.
The script doesn’t feel too dated, though it takes about half of the first act to really get moving. There’s a lot of set-up in the text that feels like too much; is the play trying to misdirect us into thinking it’s actually about political machinations? Once the show focuses on Billie – and Whelan-Browne commands the Sumner every moment she is on stage, even when she’s in the background and silent – the show takes flight. She is perfect in the role, not just because of the comedy or the continuing refrains of Anything Goes, but because she is so adept at the play’s later dramatic turns.
Russell Dykstra is suitably repulsive as Harry Brock, who is a few shades more disgusting when it becomes clear Dykstra is playing up the Trump connections. His small moments of anger and violence are never played for laughs or light heartedly, which has been a problem when MTC has mounted older plays before.
I am never surprised when a classic can speak to the present, but it is a pity that a play from post-Second World War feels so right to premiere this month. Director Dean Bryant has given Whelan-Browne another role of a lifetime, but he’s also put together a production that’s sharper than it may have been if only approached as a dumb-girl-gets-smart narrative. It could have so easily been a screwball comedy, but Bryant has fashioned a clear-eyed and sharp satire.
Born Yesterday feels like it might have been born yesterday; a classic play with worrying resonances to today of all days.