Review: HOLIDAY at Arena Stage

Philip Barry's 1928 classic runs through November 6.

By: Oct. 14, 2022
Review: HOLIDAY at Arena Stage
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"Aren't you funny, Johnny, to talk about it."

It is money. The speaker is the young, comely Julia Seton. Johnny is her fiance after a whirlwind romance upon their meeting on winter holiday in Lake Placid. The year is 1928.

Johnny, an energetic, up-from-his-bootstraps fellow from Baltimore, hadn't realized that Julia is one of those Setons and is pleasantly surprised to discover that she's loaded. A lawyer with some stock smarts of his own, Johnny's no fortune hunter, but he has some whimsical ideas about making a fat nest egg, quitting work, traveling the world while he's young and healthy, then returning to work when he's older and his wanderlust has been sated. "Retire young, and work old," he succinctly explains. He hasn't shared this plan with Julia yet but he is sure she'll be OK with it.

Her sister Linda is not so sure, though she herself very much sees the charm in it -- and in Johnny.

Therein is the love-triangle tension at the heart of Philip Barry's play Holiday, which just opened in a handsome, charming, well cast, and quite moving production at Arena Stage. Arena bills the work, directed by Anita Maynard-Losh, as "a sparkling romantic comedy." That's not inaccurate, but as with the 1938 George Cukor film version with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant -- a close cousin to the stage play but with some important distinctions -- it's not the whole story.

For wrapped in the sparkling comedy -- like a brooding beauty draped in a flapper's glorious gown -- is existential dread of the affluenza variety and expressed in sometimes borderline experimental-theater tropes that anticipate Samuel Beckett's stuck nowhere people and Luis Bunuel's party set besieged by an exterminating angel. In Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, and other works, Barry demonstrated a clever way with flashy clipped dialogue but also explored recurring problems of life choices and morality. He was modern but Catholic and preoccupied with religious themes, a student in a famed playwriting seminar at Harvard but also the scion of an unstable family marble and tile business. The spiritual and the material worlds, in Holiday as throughout his too-short career -- Barry died of a heart attack at 53 -- are if not directly at war at least very uneasy with each other.

The Setons' five-story Fifth Avenue fortress is strangely stifling, its psychic freedoms shrunken in reverse proportion to the square footage and ceiling height. A children's playroom at the pinnacle, redolent with the memory of a deceased mother, serves as an almost surreal emblem of the distraught Linda. She spies life beyond the drafty halls of the banker's palace but cannot quite fathom how to escape to it. Nor can her brother Ned, writhing futilely under the heavy weight of his father Edward Seton's thumb. The kids have nicknamed the senior Seton "Big Business" and Ned uses copious alcohol to numb himself to the sire's opulent oppression.

Julia, the socially adept beauty, seems at home enough, though, and increasingly proves to be very much her father's daughter.

"The fact is money is our God here," Linda warns Johnny. He doesn't believe it -- at first. Nor does he judge it. But the almighty dollar's all-consuming force field will become clear to him.

Barry's female protagonists are psychologically complex, and Baize Buzan conveys the pained girl-woman Linda's imperiled sanity with eccentric sophistication. Beyond that is her vulnerability -- her quick playroom confession to "Neddy" about her feelings toward Johnny is a heartrending moment. In Act III, Linda's internal battle between sisterly duty and emotional survival is set to the countdown for a midnight ship launch. Director Maynard-Losh and the cast play up the tension and suspense of that to excellent effect.

Olivia Hebert, as Julia, is all twinkly eyed, bright propriety until the widening cracks in her relationship with Johnny begin to reveal a will of iron. Sean Wiberg plays up Johnny's boyish charm and confidence. He has great fun with the semi-sensical society-sendup banter with Buzan and the hijinks with free-spirited, loony pals Nick and Susan Potter -- a dapper and anarchically amusing Ahmad Kamal and Regina Aquino.

Todd Scofield's Edward Seton is cold, stiff, and unyielding, but Scofield wisely mines the character's attempted reasonableness and his vigilance over Julia's future. Seton Sr. may be narrow-minded but he's not uncaring. Emily King Brown is a fun, ludicrous cousin Laura Cram, a powdered ditzy volcano emitting toxic giggles amid the smoldering harumphs and grimaces of her husband, the squirm-inducingly named Seton Cram (Jamie Smithson).

It is, however, John Austin as Ned Seton who, through much skill and no fault of his own, almost runs away with the show. The character is deeply affecting to begin with -- in the Cukor film version, Lew Ayres is also a haunting Ned. There's something about Ned's combined sly humor, fatalism, childish stubbornness, grim self-knowledge, and hopelessness that uneasily pings the viewer's funny bone, conscience, and fear all at once. Austin hits the timing of his hilarious advances and retreats just right. His plight is all the more pitiful in that, we infer, he too pines for Johnny. Linda, seeing Ned curled up drunk and suddenly sleeping in the playroom, keeps promising to rescue him from the Setons' monied crypt, but we know better.

Misha Kachman's set -- leather furniture, intricate parquet wooden flooring, a vintage rocking horse in the playroom -- is elegant and craftily employs the Fichandler Stage's 360-degrees of ins, outs, ups, and downs. Ivania Stack's costumes are aptly over the top in sensuous and stately period pizazz.

Depending on their era, there is usually a metanarrative to stage revivals and film adaptations of this now almost-century-old drama. In 2022, the original's precarious perching on the cliff of the Great Depression is echoed in our own pandemic disruptions and the soul searching of our Great Resignation.

"They won't let you have any fun, and they won't give me time to think," Johnny complains to Linda about the stuffshirt Setons. True enough but that is a criticism no one will make of Arena's appealing Holiday, which provokes us to think throughout and long after the undeniable if bittersweet fun.


Run time: two hours and 50 minutes, including two intermissions

Photograph by Tony Powell and courtesy of Arena Stage. From left to right, Sean Wiberg, Olivia Hebert, Todd Scofield, Baize Buzan, and John Austin.