Review: “Holiday”, at Arena Stage until November 6, tends to drag on

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Long before the “great quit” of our time, Johnny Case planned to do good by not doing good. A key character in Philip Barry’s 1928 parlor comedy ‘Holiday’, now on view at the Arena Stage in a squeaky-so-slickly-acted production, Johnny is a rising Wall Street lawyer who aims to quit working , in order to discover the fullness of life and find one’s own purpose.

Easier said than done, as we see more than three acts that sometimes drag out, directed by Anita Maynard-Losh. A self-made man, Johnny (Sean Wiberg) finds that his scheme does not please his wealthy fiancée, Julia Seton (Olivia Hebert). With Julia’s snobbish father (Todd Scofield) also opposed, and her rebellious sister, Linda (Baize Buzan), cheering Johnny on, the sweetly joking dialogue and proper conflict head to a conclusion that’s never in doubt.

“Holiday” is perhaps now best known from the 1938 film adaptation starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn (who reunited in the screen version of Barry’s 1939 play “The Philadelphia Story” ). Arena’s “Holiday” gets lavish three-dimensional specificity from Misha Kachman’s stage design for the Fichandler stage in the round. From the art deco floor to the elaborate pink dollhouse of a playroom, the Setons’ Fifth Avenue mansion is steeped in the time period of history: the winter of 1928-29.

Play on the role of fall in the nation’s capital

After a stilted opening, the performers seem mostly comfortable in this environment. Buzan is particularly good at teasing Linda’s liveliness and frustration, lounging around in costume designer Ivania Stack’s gorgeous flapper dresses, and talking with smirking, packed desperation. Wiberg hints at the emotional complexity underlying Johnny’s understated charm, and Regina Aquino and Ahmad Kamal spice up Linda’s free-spirited friends Susan and Nick Potter. As Julia and Linda’s slacker brother, Ned, John Austin provides deadpan humor – through the proper way of holding a drink or making an entrance – while capturing the character’s pathos.

In perhaps the script’s best line, Linda warns Johnny that her family is used to a “general atmosphere of plenty, with the top riveted to the cornucopia.” The room’s derogatory portrayal of this abundance for some, and Johnny’s objections to the cult of money and the rat race, certainly speaks to our time of stark inequality and pandemic-induced career revisions. It’s also nice to have the opportunity to admire Barry’s prescience: before the stock market crash of 1929, “Holiday” seems prophetic in its critical attitude towards dynamic business mentalities and irrationally exuberant investments. Our awareness that the Setons are rushing into the Great Depression adds valuable tension to the story.

Despite such resonance, this “vacation” too often feels musty, especially in the opening stretch, which has a heavy beat and a dull narrative throat-clearing tune. It would take more liveliness and directorial ingenuity to make Barry’s Jazz Age more of a hit than an enjoyable enough museum piece.

Holiday, by Philippe Barry. Directed by Anita Maynard-Losh; lighting design, Pablo Santiago; sound, Daniel Erdberg; original music, Erdberg and Ursula Kwong-Brown. With Emily King Brown, Jamie Smithson and others. About 2 hours and 30 minutes. Through Nov. 6 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. arenastage.org.

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