These days, when social status is often
confused with fame or wealth, it’s hard to comprehend that just
a few decades ago, status, although always closely related to
wealth, had just as much to do with "connections,"
"breeding," "social standing," and knowing
which fork to use at the table.
For all of these reasons, Philip Barry’s "Holiday," now on stage at the Gallery Players, often seems a period piece, albeit a very well-written one with clever and quick dialogue.
"Holiday" began life as a Broadway play, which opened on Nov. 26, 1928 at the Plymouth Theatre and ran for 229 performances. The show was directed by Arthur Hopkins and starred Dorothy Tree as the wealthy young lady, Julia Seton; Ben Smith as Johnny Case, her middle-class suitor; and Hope Williams as Julia’s unconventional sister Linda, with Katherine Hepburn (prophetically) as her understudy.
Two years later, RKO turned the play into a film with Ann Harding as Linda, Robert Ames as Case, and Mary Astor as Julia. But the most famous incarnation of "Holiday" is the 1938 Columbia film starring Katherine Hepburn as Linda and Cary Grant as Johnny.
Columbia chief Harry Cohn originally wanted Irene Dunne for the role of Linda, but director George Cukor (who had directed Hepburn in several films, including her first, "A Bill of Divorcement") persuaded him to sign Hepburn for the role - a decision that had mixed results.
Set in the Roaring Twenties, "Holiday" is about the encounter of old, established New York wealth with middle-class romanticism. Julia (Leigh Williams), having met Johnny (Brian Letscher) while they were both on vacation at Lake Placid, brings him home to meet her family: her father, Edward Seton (David Crommett); her fiery and frustrated younger sister, Linda (Inga Wilson); and her perpetually inebriated brother, Ned (Andy Waldschmidt).
Despite Johnny’s middle-class background, Julia’s father is willing, if not exactly thrilled, to welcome him into the family, until Johnny finds out he has earned $20,000 in the stock market and prepares to retire to follow his dream of finding himself - while he and Julia live off his new money and her old money.
Edward puts his foot, in its patent leather shoe, down.
Julia hesitates but clearly leans toward her father’s pragmatic approach to life. Linda, obviously taken with her sister’s man, urges more understanding and appreciation of Johnny’s carefree ways. Ned is vaguely on Johnny’s side, when he can take his mind off the bottle.
Dressed in Sean Sullivan’s divine gowns and tuxedos, the Seton’s and their friends gracefully inhabit the well-heeled world so well delineated by Harlan D. Penn’s rendering of the Seton home - from the elegant third-floor parlor with its period furniture to the nursery - which looks something like FAO Schwartz.
Williams sets the tone nicely with her cool, passionless portrayal of the unflappable Julia. And Crommett makes Edward slightly distasteful, but not so much that he’s at all hard to swallow. This reviewer would like to have seen Wilson’s Linda a bit more wanton and wild - something that might be hard after Hepburn’s definitive performance. And as for Letscher - well, he’s really OK. But then no one can fill Cary Grant’s shoes, and without that persona, it’s hard to imagine what all the fuss is about anyway.
Despite favorable reviews, the 1938 film was not a box-office success - perhaps because by this time the country was deeply mired in the Great Depression and could imagine no virtue in a young man giving up profitable work to see the world. Although "Holiday" was later to become a classic Hepburn/Grant film, its immediate result was David Selznick’s refusal to consider Hepburn for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in "Gone with the Wind."
If "Holiday" was out-of-date as far back as 1938, how much more so is it today when royalty so often carries on like riffraff, and riffraff so frequently believes itself royalty? Barry’s dialogue still sparkles and the elegance still dazzles. But with the disintegration of all but wealth separating upper class from lower class, even the greatness of "The Great Gatsby" can be called into question.
In 2003, the roar may be gone from the Roaring Twenties and "Holiday" more historical than hilarious, but at the Gallery Players, the play is still a nice romp with capable, if not compelling, performances.
The Gallery Players production of "Holiday" plays through Dec. 14, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets are $15, $12 children under 12 and seniors. The Gallery Players are located at 199 14th St. between Fourth and Fifth avenues in Park Slope. For reservations, call (718) 595-0547.