Review: ‘Holiday,’ at Arena Stage through Nov. 6, tends to lumber along



Long before our era’s “Great Resignation,” Johnny Case planned to make good by not making good. A key character in Philip Barry’s 1928 drawing-room comedy “Holiday,” now on view at Arena Stage in a creaky if ably acted production, Johnny is a rising Wall Street lawyer who aims to quit working, so as to experience life’s fullness and find his own purpose.

Easier said than done, as we see over three acts that unspool in sometimes dawdling fashion, directed by Anita Maynard-Losh. A self-made man, Johnny (Sean Wiberg) finds that his scheme doesn’t appeal to his wealthy fiancee, Julia Seton (Olivia Hebert). With Julia’s snobbish father (Todd Scofield) also opposed, and her rebellious sister, Linda (Baize Buzan), cheering Johnny on, the gently bantering dialogue and decorous conflict wend toward a conclusion that’s never in doubt.

“Holiday” may now be better known from the 1938 movie 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 luscious, three-dimensional specificity from Misha Kachman’s scenic design for the in-the-round Fichandler Stage. From the art deco — style floor to a playroom’s elaborate pink dollhouse, the Setons’ Fifth Avenue mansion is steeped in the story’s time frame: winter 1928-29.

Plays on the fall docket in the nation’s capital

After a stilted opening, the performers mostly seem at home in this environment. Buzan is particularly good at teasing out Linda’s vivacity and frustration, jaunting around in costume designer Ivania Stack’s gorgeous flapper dresses and speaking with snark and tamped-down despair. Wiberg suggests the emotional complexity beneath Johnny’s low-key charm, and Regina Aquino and Ahmad Kamal lend zest to Linda’s free-spirited friends Susan and Nick Potter. As Julia and Linda’s slacker brother, Ned, John Austin supplies deadpan humor — through just the right manner of holding a glass, or making an entrance — while also capturing the character’s pathos.

In perhaps the script’s best line, Linda warns Johnny that her family is accustomed to a “general atmosphere of plenty, with the top riveted down on the cornucopia.” The play’s disparaging portrait of that plenty-for-some, and Johnny’s objections to money worship and the rat race, certainly speak to our era of glaring inequality and pandemic-prompted career rethinks. It’s also nice to have an opportunity to admire Barry’s prescience: Predating the 1929 stock market crash, “Holiday” seems prophetic in its critical attitude to go-go business mind0-sets and irrationally exuberant investing. Our awareness that the Setons are hurtling toward the Great Depression adds valuable tension to the story.

Despite such resonance, this “Holiday” too often feels musty, especially in the opening stretch, which has a lumbering pace and irksome air of narrative throat-clearing. It would require more briskness and directorial ingenuity to make Barry’s Jazz Age hit more than a pleasant-enough museum piece.

Holiday, by Philip 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.

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