That sound you hear this morning is one of relief. The Circle in the Square could be on its way to recouping some of its lost reputation with its youthful, vigorous, good-looking revival of "Holiday," the nearly 70-year-old Philip Barry comedy of manners that opened last night.
You're only partly right if you think that the play, which is about the tiny problems of the seriously rich, would appear to be arcane in 1995. In fact, time gives this comedy a rather darker edge than it must have possessed originally. On Oct. 28, 1929, Black Friday, just 11 months after the opening of the original production here, the stock market crashed.The Depression that followed was to change forever the lives of people like the Setons, the family Barry was writing about with such airy confidence in 1928.
The Setons have so much money they would probably have weathered Black Friday with scarcely a hiccup. Yet with the 1932 election to the Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, seen as a traitor to their class, their authority would never again be quite the same.
It's not necessary to look at "Holiday" through this historical telescope, but it helps you to understand the play today.
It gives unexpected perspective to Barry's fable about Johnny Case, the brash young man who breezes into the Setons' Fifth Avenue mansion and blithely questions the values by which most of them swear. It's not by accident that Edward Seton, the patriarch, keeps calling Johnny "Mr. Chase." As his daughter Linda points out, "Chase has such a sweet banking sound."
Johnny is a corporation lawyer on Wall Street, a charming fellow of no social background but of great financial prospects. Before the start of the play, he and Julia, the elder Seton daughter, have met at Lake Placid. During a 10-day courtship on skis, they have fallen in love and decided to marry. It isn't the father who becomes the impediment to the marriage, but Johnny himself. His life's goal is "to retire early and work late."
When he has accumulated $25,000, he says, he plans to take off and enjoy himself. The intention is to have fun while he's still physically capable. He'll return to business later. The stock market being what it is in 1928, going higher and higher, Johnny achieves his windfall and announces his plans even as Julia's father is announcing the engagement.
Julia is appalled at Johnny's decision. She wants a proper house in town and a place in the country. The beautiful, carefree young woman he proposed to at Lake Placid turns out to be as materialistic as her father. In an outburst that's as ferocious as it is spontaneous, she tells him, "There's no such thrill in the world as making money." Only the gutsy, unconventional Linda urges him on. She and Johnny are kindred spirits.
Under the direction of David Warren, this new production benefits enormously from the freshness of the actors in all the principal roles. Tony Goldwyn, the grandson of the film producer Samuel Goldwyn and the playwright Sidney Howard, betrays none of his formidable show-biz heritage in the role of Johnny. His is an elegant, serious and funny portrayal of a man who's both deceptively callow and tenacious. The beautiful Laura Linney is his equal as the no-nonsense Linda, who, though bored with her own upper class, is so secure in her position that she can afford to be totally without snobbery.
Most people today probably know "Holiday" only in George Cukor's spiffily acted 1938 film version with Cary Grant as Johnny, Katharine Hepburn as Linda and Doris Nolan as a Julia who's so frosty that there's never any doubt about which sister will get the man. Kim Raver, who plays Julia in the revival, is partly successful in correcting this imbalance. There is an honest sense of sisterly affection at the start, but the role is not written to allow Julia to be anything but bitchy by the end.
Julia can be seen as a kind of precursor of Tracy Lord at the start of "The Philadelphia Story" (1939), possibly the most successful of all Barry's comedies. Tracy begins as Julia and winds up transformed into Linda. With experience, Barry learned to be more economical.
Other performances in this production that should be mentioned are those of Tom Lacy as the father, Rod McLachlan and Becca Lish as some especially ghastly Seton cousins, and Michael Countryman and Anne Lange as Johnny's best friends.
Barry's play has its holes. You don't have to be hopelessly committed to the worship of the dollar to find Johnny's desire to have fun somewhat vague, maybe even as disastrous as Julia predicts. How is he going to spend his time? He mentions swimming, and being in a place where you can swim whenever you want. Other than that, Barry leaves Johnny a blank. At heart he's another variation on a well-worn stereotype: the nonconformist as idealized in so much prewar American literature satirizing the Protestant business ethic.
The Barry dialogue isn't always easy to speak and to respond to today. Along with the expected Barry wit, there's a lot of banter that now sounds forced, insistently arch, as if the characters are more desperate than they're supposed to be. It plays like period talk.
At the same time "Holiday" has its moments of genuine pathos, most of them relating to Linda's affection for her debonaire, alcoholic brother, Ned, played with sweet, gentle ease by Reg Rogers. This role, which I thought I remembered from the Lew Ayres performance in the movie, is a revelation here. Ned is not just a rummy layabout. It's probable that he's also a severely inhibited homosexual who will be dead of cirrhosis within a year.
Not the least of Mr. Warren's directorial accomplishments is that he manages to neutralize, and in one instance to capitalize on, the difficulties presented by the in-the-round stage. Each of Derek McLane's two handsome sets uses the entire space, first as a family drawing room and then as the children's old playroom. The latter set, which descends from above at the end of Act I and rises again before Act III, merits the applause that it receives. It's theatrical and it's specific fun.