Bryan Brown and Colin Friels in Zebra | Wharf 1

Can Bryan Brown really act? Has he ever been asked to play anyone other than, or beyond, incrementally augmented versions of himself (Bryan Brown 2.0), the best version of which, in living memory, starred in Two Hands?

As the upright, stoic, sardonic, Aussie man’s and woman’s man, he’s hard to go past. That, he can do. And that’s essentially what he’s asked to do here in Zebra, a new Sydney Theatre Company play, as down-on-his-luck GFC victim and former real estate supersalesman (can there be any more heroic version of an Australian, in this day and age?), about to steal away with Colin Friels’ (well, Larry’s) daughter, Jennifer.

Except that’s he’s also called upon to get angry. Really angry. Really fired-up. Really emotional. He’s called upon to appear really frustrated, really hurt. Really disappointed. But all of these tasks are dealt with, here, in the rather matter-of-fact, passionless Brown way. He looks utterly uncomfortable, at those times, in his character’s skin. Yet at the times he’s asked to be the bloke in the pub, the one with a wry and pithy turn of phrase, the joke, the legendary one that fits and defines the vernacular, he’s the cat’s pyjamas. Well, the kangaroo’s Stubbies.

And let’s face it, what are Pacino or Hoffman, or even Gielgud, but versions of themselves? I’m not posing this question to be provocative, or nasty, let alone to take a scythe to a tall poppy. It’s a generic question worthy of warmed-over discourse, methinks, not merely vis a vis, but via, Brown. Read and discuss. regardless, Lee Lewis needed, and needs, to get more out of him, otherwise it risks being an infamous equivalent of William Hurt’s Mr Mumbles, in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, under Andrew Upton’s flaccid baton.

Friels, it seems to me, is always a version of himself too, but, in every case, likable and charismatic, with a cheekier, more insinuating charm than the dry and often stiff Brownie. It took him a few moments to find his American accent, but once locked-on, it was all good. Not brilliant, mind you, but good. As the hard-drinking dotcom millionaire, separated but still a defender of family values, as well as diehard champion of Springsteen (which probably amounts to the same thing), he’s pretty good.

But this isn’t Two Hands, it’s three hands, and the real star of this production is Nadine Garner, as dive-barmaid Robinson, otherwise referred to as Jill, the hapless working-class victim of the subprime collapse, engineered by liars, cheats and bankers (which really amounts to the same thing). She’s just lost her partner, in life and business, Marty. He strangled himself and has left her only strangling debt as his loving legacy. We really feel her loss, her pain, her anger, her frustration, her confusion, her lingering love-hate, her loneliness, her courage.

The other hero is the set, a kind of grungy version of the Cheers! bar, in which every detail has been carefully fashioned. There’s the crucified Jesus, presiding. But just across from him, if mounted a little lower, is JFK. Two of Ireland’s favourite sons (yes, I’m sure, given their druthers they’d claim ’em both, or do a straight swap for Bono and Geldof). There are the requisite sporting trophies, photos taken during times of good craic and a bulging economy, Jameson’s whisky and Bud.

The final hero is Ross Mueller’s script which, while a little ragged and containing one questionable, if provocative, anti-Semitic utterance, is genuinely funny, genuinely insightful (both in matters of the heart and economy) and genuinely pathetic, in the true sense of the word.

A kangaroo goes into a bar and orders a beer. The barman says, “that’ll be 10 bucks; you know, we don’t get many kangaroos in here”. The ‘roo says: “Ten bucks?! I’m not surprised!”

The details: Zebra plays Wharf 1 in Sydney until April 30. Tickets on the company website.