Review: HOLIDAY at Washington's Arena Stage: Deeply Flawed Show, Flawless Performance

Now through November 6th.

By: Oct. 17, 2022
Review: HOLIDAY at Washington's Arena Stage: Deeply Flawed Show, Flawless Performance

They sure don't write them like Holiday anymore. A play about the foibles of a family of rich White people that supplies no meaningful social or racial context, a critique of the world of wealth which is bafflingly superficial, and a romance almost lacking in visible courtship, playwright Philip Barry's 1928 Broadway hit has very little claim to be produced now. Yet it's given a sumptuous and impressive production by Arena Stage in Washington. Go for the performances, the costumes, and the direction, and you'll be fine. Seek more, and you may be disappointed.

It's hard to image a play more avant le déluge than this. As the title suggests, the play is set mostly over the Christmas and New Year's holiday season at the time of the original production, 1928-29. As the action begins, the hero, Johnny Case (Sean Wiberg), is about to make a bundle on some investment, establishing his bona fides as a supposedly canny stock market player. That is the view he and others hold of him throughout the action, and we're meant to view this investment, which serves as capstone to Johnny's financial success, as indeed being reflective of his own personal acumen. And that might have been a reasonable audience response when the play opened. Lots of people had regarded themselves as great investors before the 1929 Crash, but were forced by later circumstances to acknowledge they had just been riding on the coattails of dangerous and unsustainable market conditions. The original Broadway production of Holiday closed weeks before the Crash, so many people's perspectives were about to change just as the final curtain fell on the play and an era.

Barry rethought nothing. Through many productions and two movie versions of Holiday in his lifetime, Playwright Barry continued not to take account of what the Crash had shown. Johnny was never demoted from astute investor to passive beneficiary of (or possibly active participant in) market manipulations that greatly damaged the economies, livelihoods and prospects of billions of people around the world. In such a changed world, though, no viewer could be expected to watch the play without interrogating Barry's presentation of Johnny's character.

Even without the benefit (if that's the word) of 1929, the play comes from a strange place. Johnny's superiority rests not merely upon his supposed good judgment as an investor but also upon his disdain for the world of wealth he is entering as the play begins. We are meant to admire Johnny because he sees no point in continuing to earn further wealth after he has achieved a sufficiency of it. Johnny values money for the freedom it brings him and Julia Seton, his prospective bride (Olivia Hebert), to enjoy life in an active and exploratory way. This places him in contrast and in conflict with his wealthy potential father-in-law, Edward Seton (Todd Scofield), who not only firmly restricts his and his family's social life to members of a freemasonry of other wealthy families but entertains a work ethic that compels the male head of a household to go on compulsively earning for the rest of his life on pain of being thought an idler.

Edward maintains this commitment to pursuing wealth and socializing only with those who engage in the same pursuit, despite this focus having had some adverse impacts on his family. Notably it affects his other daughter Linda (Baize Buzan), a vivid and feeling soul, who actively mourns the sterility wealth has imposed on her life, and rebels by acting out in various ways. His son Ned (John Austin) has lost interest in almost anything but alcohol, and is a definite, and despairing, idler. (There is, I think, in the direction of this play a small hint that he may also be gay and repressed; the reading is not compelled by anything in Barry's text, but that hint of repression would certainly go along with Barry's suggestion that life in this compulsively wealthy household may not be good for its members' mental health.) None of this is helped by Edward's domineering and unbending ways. Only Julia seems to be happy with the family ethos, and in consequence is not really on board with Johnny's program of living life to the fullest rather than the richest.

This is inconvenient, as Julia happens to be the member of the household engaged to Johnny as the tale begins. Given Edward's intransigence and Julia's identification with Edward's point of view, something is going to have to yield, either the engagement or Johnny's aspirations. For much of the play, it looks as if the aspirations are the likely fall guys, but then there's Linda, whose views are more like Johnny's, and with whom Johnny seems to have some kind of spark ... You can see where this all is likely going, confirmed by the artwork Arena is using as the logo of the production, depicting Julia touching Jonny possessively, while Johnny is looking at Linda.

The problem with Barry's critique, however, is that it really isn't thought through. Linda's behavior is hardly an exemplary alternative to the Seton lifestyle. She doesn't propose to earn a living so she can be independent of the family, nor does she engage in the civic or charitable activities with which the wealthy have often employed to hold idleness at bay. Merely rebelliously subverting a party, as she does at one juncture, while it may constitute a convincing shriek for independence, does not add much content to Barry's critique of the Jazz Age American plutocracy.

To paper over these deficiencies, Barry turns to a love story as a universal solvent for all unresolved ideological disagreements. But our principals don't seem to be much deeper thinkers when it comes to love than they are in matters of wealth and social class. As we meet Johnny and Julia, they've become engaged over a ten-day acquaintance, and propose to be married in under two weeks more - despite having major unresolved disagreements about how to live once they've tied the knot. This heedless pace does not chime well with notions of Johnny as a sensible young man, nor of Julia even as a sensible conventional-minded young woman. Johnny also continues being plighted to Julia even after he and Linda have exchanged what amount to declarations of love. And when, as has been prefigured from early on, he turns more definitively to Linda, he's gravitating towards a woman who's known him for an even shorter time than Julia has. The bewitched lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream seem sobersided by comparison. And at least that crew had had fairy juice smeared on their eyelids with the express object of overriding their judgment. Johnny, Linda, and Julian can plead no such excuse.

In order to find this resolution acceptable, even within the willing-suspension-of-disbelief conventions of theater, we have to become votaries of the cult of love, accepting that there is such rightness in a relationship established on the fly that all prudential considerations immediately and legitimately pale in importance compared to it. I'll grant that in Johnny and Linda's case, it's possible to call this incipient love an actual resolution, because Linda seems to share Johnny's views of the superfluity of cash beyond a certain well-heeled sufficiency; still, as she's never lived without the money of the daddy she rebels against, it's hard to guess what the experiment of doing so might look like. (And anyway, the Crash is about to alter a lot of people's minds about what constitutes a sufficiency.)

But even setting that problem aside, this resolution to the ideological conflicts wouldn't convince. How can serious debates be rendered irrelevant by fleeting attractions that amount to no more than crushes, which is all this play shows us? Or how would that work even with more maturely-nurtured and sensible loves?

Barry's willingness to use a love plot as a solvent may have been tied up with his deeper conflicts about the wealthy. He seems to want to have it both ways: critiquing them without really pillorying them. Being more honest wouldn't even have been original. His peers were writing about the rich without ignoring their serious collective shortcomings. Three years earlier Barry's friend Scott Fitzgerald had produced The Great Gatsby, a tale in which the wealthy characters leave literal corpses in their wake and never face consequences. A decade later, Orson Welles would tell of the destructive way that Citizen Kane deployed power and wealth. Barry's socialites, here and in his greatest hit, The Philadelphia Story, may have their shortcomings, but Barry entertains and invites no suspicion that there could have been anything unsavory as to how they have gotten or used their money. Contrary to what all understand today, these characters' money is somehow acquired without chicanery, fraud, market manipulation, exploitation of the poor, environmental damage or misallocation of social resources. Barry surely knew - from Dickens, from Upton Sinclair, from Ibsen and Shaw, from all around, that most of the great fortunes of his era were founded on predatory and abusive behavior. But the worst this play says about the class of those who perpetrated and profited from it is that their ideology and behavior produces some unfortunate family dynamics. In other words, though he had purported to turn a jaundiced eye on the rich, Barry was really averting his gaze.

In failing to do more, Barry forfeited any opportunity his talents might have provided him to write a great play. Still, we can all agree he did succeed in crafting an artifact of an era, an era in which the rich were often portrayed as glamorous and good fun. They could even be laughed at indulgently as Bertie Wooster was, or Margaret Dumont in a Marx Brothers movie. A strong revival like this one will remind us what such judgment-free regard for the wealthy felt like: a lovely fantasy.

The saving grace of this particular production lies in the painstaking vigor with which it revives that fantasy for a couple of hours. You want to see the Charleston danced? Check. Bobbed hair? Check. Victrolas and antique telephones? Check and check. Three properly attired domestic servants? Definitely. Ornate period dresses and men's formal wear? Oh, yes, and a tip of the hat to costume designer Ivania Stack, especially for a gold dress a well-financed flapper might sport, that Linda gets to wear in the later going. (See the photo above.) All the necessary furniture and accoutrements. (And let me acknowledge, in passing, a magnificent and fascinating set by Misha Kachman. Between set elements and props, I believe I've never witnessed as intricately orchestrated a set change as occurs in full view of the audience between Acts One and Act Two.)

More importantly, the director and cast go very gamely and professionally into the task of revivifying this dinosaur as an actual dramatic performance. I think what it requires is an approach that takes the characters as seriously as they take themselves - a stretch when their behavior, as I've noted, cannot help but seem ludicrous at times to modern audiences. To a man and woman, the actors rise to the task. I was particularly struck by Baize Buzan's Linda, I think because you almost believed in her character even when Barry had written unnatural contortions for her, like her being selfless and supportive of her sister's claim on Johnny's heart long after a real-life Linda (especially one who had shown the moxie not to be quiet when her father had commandeered her party) would have been pursuing her own claim to Johnny. Somehow in Buzan's hands the strain on credibility never quite becomes a sprain. I also loved the flawlessly polished (and often synchronized) hijinks of Linda's friends Susan and Nick (Regina Aquino and Ahmad Kamal), who bring comic relief in many otherwise fraught situations. (Aquino is also seen in the photo above.) And I could go down the rest of the cast and praise them all.

This is, then, a performance far better than the show it embodies. For that reason, it's definitely worth a drive down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to see.

Holiday, by Philip Barry, directed by Anita Maynard-Losh, presented through November 6, 2022 by Arena Stage, on the Fichandler Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th Street SW, Washington, D.C. 20024. Tickets $56-$95 at Click Here or 202-488-3300. Smoking and drinking.

Photo credit: Margo Schulman.

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