The last time one of Philip Barry's sophisticated comedies of American high society was revived in London was in 1987 at the Old Vic. His 1938 play Holiday, directed by Lindsay Anderson, did not quite take wing: Malcolm McDowell was too old and lacked the effortless charm as Barry's hedonistic young hero; and the austere Anderson was not ideally tuned to Barry's airy appraisal of affluent dalliance.
Now Barry's best-known play, The Philadelphia Story, is revived at the same address under Kevin Spacey. Movie memories haunt this piece - Cukor's 1940 version with Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart, and the 1956 film musical with Cole Porter's de luxe score, High Society. For this Philadelphia, Spacey takes on the Grant role of the well-heeled charmer C K Dexter Haven - yachtsman and polo-player - and Jennifer Ehle plays the thoroughbred heroine, Tracy Lord.
Much is riding on this revival. Spacey's chance to redeem his first Old Vic season - a bonanza financially, but deeply disappointing in quality. He has imported Jerry Zaks, a top US director, who has an impressive record in Broadway musicals, and who moulded John Guare's hugely successful 1990s' comedy Six Degrees of Separation, also set among the wealthy.
Barry's style of comedy is today an undeniably difficult discipline. His exclusive world could seem airless now, while the likes of Tracy or C K may appear simply solipsistic or complacent. The sour-sweet quality in performance must depend on the most acute sensitivity to Barry's special voice, which recalls the credo of the youthful writer-hero of The Second Man, by Barry's friend S N Behrman: "Life's sad. I know life's sad. But I think it's gallant to pretend that it isn't."
If Zaks and his cast can capture that quality, and make audiences care about his characters, then Spacey could have a success to lead the Old Vic into what hopefully will be a vibrant season.
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