There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
At the swanky Fifth Avenue home of the Setons, it’s everything, and it’s never mentioned. It’s to be enjoyed, but not too much and not too obviously. If you don’t have it, you’re nothing. If you have too much of it, you risk making nothing of yourself.
It, of course, is money. And “Aren’t you funny, Johnny, to talk about it,” says Julia Seton to the fiancé she just met at Lake Placid in a whirlwind romance. Money is the air we breathelofty, rare, and thinin Olney Theatre’s stirring and elegant production of Philip Barry’s engrossing, bittersweet 1928 comedy, Holiday.
Politically, this play is a strange beast, and, though popular, it was noted as such at the time. It skewers the rich, but its sharpest cuts are reserved for the rich who feel obliged to work; it goes light on the hedonistic set that sees no profit in simply letting income earn income instead of fun. The script’s narrow worldview seems all the more stark given that the action turns on New Year’s Eve of the new year 1929, when concerns other than the emotional well-being of the affluent took center stage. Surely more than a few in the audience today will be prompted to consider the newspaper articles of a year ago about how the newly flush of the Information Age had to hire therapists to help them cope with the emotional complexities of stumbling into sudden and enormous wealth.
Social context aside, Holiday’s dramatic architecture is a beaut. (You’d expect as much from the author of The Philadelphia Story.) Paced with the exact, vigorous assurance of director John Going, this production lulls you with its appealing, snappy-repartee conventionalities, then wallops you with the sage ambiguities and heartfelt uncertainties lurking a thin layer beneath that Broadway lacquer.
Johnny Case (Christopher Lane) is the innocent visitor to the planet Bucks. He didn’t realize upon falling for the lithe and lovely Julia (Christa Scott-Reed) in snowshoe country that she came from Money (with a capital Mthe Setons’ “small house” is the one without the ballroom). Now that he has discovered the fact, back in the big town, he doesn’t realize that he’s not supposed to be enthusiastic about the news. No fortune hunter he, he has the misfortune of knowing how to make his own damn moneyhaving worked his way, since he was 10, up a succession of odd jobs to a prestigious law position with Zermatt-high Wall Street connections. And Julia or no Julia, Johnny thinks he’s riding a New England utility stock to a few years of freedom and adventure in his 30s before settling down to settling down. When Julia learns of this attitude, the constancy of her affection is put to the test, and the constancy of her father Edward’s (Ian Stuart) materialism (his children have nicknamed him “Big Business”) tests everyone.
For the couple in question, the situation is a terrible quandary. To Julia’s sister, Linda (Kelly McAndrew), it’s the darkest nightmare imaginable. For not only is Linda on the side of the angels, rooting for Johnny to live his dreams and to rescue Julia from her father’s dreams, Linda also has the lousy luck to fall in love with Johnny. Willful, smart, and dissatisfied, she has always overshadowed her sister. Now, she wants to do the right thing for Julia but isn’t sure Julia is wise or independent-minded enough to do the right thing for herself. Linda’s self-consciously fun-loving friends, Nick and Susan Potter (Ian LeValley and Brigid Cleary), try to make Linda face up to the sensibleness of her own urges toward Johnny. So does her little brother Ned (Jeffries Thaiss), who is not-so-slowly pouring his life into a scotch decanter and boozily nudging Linda toward the break from the Setons’ gilded cage that he no longer has the spirit to make.
There’s not a weak link in this fabulous cast. We can’t help loving Scott-Reed’s Julia, a mint-condition Brahmin ripe for the cashing, and we can’t help hating her, too, because she’s just that. Lane, as Johnny, is handsome and easy and searching and in way over his head, the blank slate that good and bad fortune wrestle to inscribe. LeValley and Cleary, as the Potters, imbue the action with just the right dose of quirky, Gatsbyesque abandon and decay. And Seton and Laura Cram (David McCann and Helen Hedman) are stiffly satisfying counterparts to the Potters, as Linda’s stodgy, purebred, lockjawed cousins. Stuart, as the Seton patriarch, doesn’t go overboard with Daddy-dearest dreadfulness but is all the more terrifying for his studied air of reasonableness. And Thaiss, as Ned, pours a stiff shot of grimly hilarious O’Neill despair into the plot’s symmetrically mannered and misleadingly frothy proceedings.
But it is the stellar McAndrew, as the tortured, truth-seeking Linda, who owns Olney at the moment. Yes, she has to reckon with the period-piece fast-talking-dame aspect of the role. But she does so deftlyand plunges far beyond it. As Johnny notes, she’s clearly at the end of some rope, and beneath the trapeze swings she used to hang from as a child, we can see the fiber tearing. “Was mother a sweet soul, father? Was she exciting?” Linda desperately asks, hoping the clan’s fluid currency was at least once pumped with the aid of an earnest heart.
Like old money, the technical aspects of Olney’s staging demonstrate their first-rate quality with understated consistency. Daniel Conway’s set is deluxe and imaginative, especially the whimsical playroom of the second act. As coolly lit by Robert L. Scharff III, its atticlike intimacy and the sad betrayals of its miniature comfort speak volumes. David Toser’s costumes are immaculately snazzyfrom ornate smoking jackets to smart town outfits to sparkling evening frocks. When has urbane misery been better-dressed? And Ron Ursano’s sound cunningly tempts us with the thoughtless gaiety of a party, a few echoey floors away, that’s a flute-glass-tinkling orgy of abundanceand a clattering funeral of the spirit, too.
The holiday of the title is that elusive escapereified as a ship to Europefrom the machine of expectations, shadowed by the fear that we’re only trying to flee from ourselves. “They won’t let you have any fun, and they won’t give me time to think,” says Johnny to Linda. Who among us doesn’t suspect as much from time to time? We can’t all book a stateroom on a cruise ship. But we can enjoy a short excursion on Barry’s colorful and sturdy vessel. CP