FULLERTON — A few minutes into Elisabeth Graham's staging of Philip Barry's "Holiday" at the Vanguard Theatre, the eye is caught by the unmistakable style of Dior's "New Look," in which the women are dressed and gowned. Hold on, that's the 1950s! A glance at the program reveals that Graham indeed has set the play in 1955.
It's an odd decision: The 1950s wealthy WASP world is the property of playwright A.R. Gurney. World War II was over; everyone was making money, and the upper crust was still insular but no longer had the cachet it once did. "Holiday"--with its echoes of instantaneous stock market gains and Barry's subtle prediction that the society mores of his time were heading for a crash along with the market--is so steeped in a 1920s aura that its period is unequivocal and its style indisputable.
Just ignore the program note, and try to forget that the women are dressed anachronistically: Graham hasn't directed the play from a 1955 viewpoint. The tone of her staging is right where it belongs, in 1928, with a madcap sense of abandon infusing the unsettling visions of the younger and more realistic Seton children, who are aware that an era is shutting down.
Graham keeps the dialogue crackling and the rhythms energetic, quite properly, as Barry's style foreshadowed the screwball comedies of the 1930s (and was almost a lost art in 1955).
Steven Sturm is a slightly rough-hewn Johnny Case, the young man on his way up from an ignoble beginning to the type of financial success that wouldn't be de rigeur again until the yuppie 1980s. His intrusion into the patriarchal, super-rich Seton clan, by way of his sudden engagement to the snobbish Julia, is given an extra dimension in Sturm's raw swagger and engaging buoyancy.
Wendy Abas as his fiancee is remarkable in her ability to make Julia, at least on the surface, likable enough to explain Johnny's infatuation. But the show is almost stolen by Jennifer Rendek as Linda, the other Seton daughter, who has an outlook like Johnny's and, like him, a slight raw edge at once volatile and winning. It's a stylish performance with a wealth of truthful intent and revealing detail.
Just as stylish is Tony Masters' impeccable performance as the weak, drunken Seton son, Ned. His scene with Linda, in the attic playroom at the end of Act 2, is touching and magical, and the director's taste has given it the sparkle of a rare gem, helped immeasurably by Jensen Crawford's poetic lighting design.
Stu Eriksen is strong as the rigid father, Edward Seton, showing an affecting charm beneath his autocratic surface. The supporting cast provides the same classy gloss to an excellent revival that certainly knows its period, even if it doesn't know its date.
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* "Holiday," Vanguard Theatre, 699A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton. Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. Ends July 27. $12-$14. (714) 526-8007.
Wendy Abas: Julia Seton
Steven Sturm: Johnny Case
Jennifer Rendek: Linda Seton
Tony Masters: Ned Seton
Stu Eriksen: Edward Seton
A Vanguard Theatre Ensemble production of a comedy by Philip Barry, produced by Howard Johnson, directed by Elisabeth Graham. Scenic design: Michael Keith Allen, based on a concept by Mark Laskowski. Costume design: Dave Temple. Lighting design: Jensen Crawford. Production stage manager: Sunshine Miller.