If your wallet is so bare this summer you have to pick and choose what shows to attend rather carefully, Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever” at Circle Theatre is definitely a must see. It’s been quite a while since I’ve heard an audience laugh so hard at a comedy. Circle Theatre’s production is uproariously funny, fresh, and lively.
I must admit I wasn’t expecting much from this 84-year-old British play. It’s not only hard to read, there’s really no plot at all and little action. It’s all in the acting.
A few years after the initial success of “Hay Fever,” Noel Coward commented on the deceptively simple nature of his1924 hit, which was apparently prompting many amateur theater companies to attempt their own productions. Coward observed that due to “the smallness of its cast, and the fact that it has only one set, this leads the poor dears to imagine that it is easy to act.” Nothing could be farther from the truth.
But director Jim Schneider was certainly up to the challenge of making the characters in this cleverly constructed comedy simultaneously annoying and endearing. The actors are all letter-perfect. Schneider also directed the recent Circle hits, Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” and “Design for Living,” also by Coward. Many of the nine cast members in this show appeared in those productions.
There’s never any attempt by Coward to explain anyone’s behavior in this raucous romp about a family of madcap Bohemians. They’re all hilariously crazed, constantly vying for attention. The acting challenge is that each character needs to be heavily stylized and over-the-top, yet also grounded in reality so we care about them.
Quite simply, the storyline is about a visit to the country gone bad. According to theatrical legend, the plot was inspired by a weekend young Coward spent at the home of has-been actress Laurette Taylor and her off-the-wall family. The playwright promptly penned the show in just three days. (Taylor is now remembered for making a major comeback several decades later in the mother role in Tennessee Williams’ “Glass Menagerie.”)
If there’s a photo accompanying this review showing the full cast you might imagine it resembling some Agatha Christie “body in the library” whodunit. A variety of rich and stylish 1920s characters are gathered in an elegant drawing room.
The comedy focuses on the unpredictable, self-dramatizing Bliss family of four who, unbeknownst to one another, each invite a guest to their country home. The family members share their unique, self-absorbed way of looking at life. Their unsuspecting quartet of weekend visitors immediately becomes the zany family’s virtual supporting cast. At first they’re somewhat amused but soon they’re horrified and humiliated as huge scenes pop full-blown from tiny incidents, with the daffy Bliss family members quoting great hunks of dialogue from their hostess’s old shows.
Judith Hoppe’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. She’s perfectly wonderful playing Judith Bliss, a hopelessly narcissistic, now retired former star of the London stage still needing constantly to be the center of attention. Bliss is a larger-than-life, former incandescent star who cannot do or say anything that isn’t an echo to some of the corny stuff she once played in bygone West End productions. She’s planning a comeback in a role similar to what she played a generation or two earlier. The character is undoubtedly a parody of actresses who keep on acting even when off-stage. And Hoppe is so good it’s like watching Carol Burnette doing Norma Desmond from “Sunset Boulevard.”
At one point Judith Bliss launches into one of her corny old show tunes. Lyrics like “There are fairies in the bottom of my garden” no doubt must have provided much double entendre mirth for the closeted playwright’s inner circle.
Erin Reitz plays Judith’s beautiful daughter who invites an awkward, rather dull-witted diplomat (Jonathan Nichols.) Bradford R. Lund is a riot as Judith’s mama’s boy son, an artist who loves to paint nudes and is usually the first to feed his mother lines from her old hit shows.
Judith’s so bored she’s invited a young admirer, a boxing champ and her self-proclaimed greatest fan (Eric Lindahl) for the weekend.
Cathy Ferraro plays a shy, lovely but empty-headed flapper who is terrified by the flamboyant personalities around her.
Kimberly Logan is a sophisticated ice-queen who looks like a silent movie vamp. (Her hostess says the fashionable femme fatale “uses sex as a sort of shrimping net” to catch men.)
The husband of Judith Bliss, an egotistical novelist, is played by Peter Esposito.
Mary Redmon is a cranky, sassy servant who was once Judith Bliss’s stage dresser. She’s especially fun when singing the ’20s hit “Tea for Two” to herself.
After parlor games, the 1920s’ version of speed dating, are played, people pair off and partners get swapped. People duck into the library for clandestine romance. Coward’s tightly constructed comedy depicts high ’20s sexual sophistication and wit.
Bob Knuth’s set, complete with art glass windows, is quite amazing. Around the proscenium are old English theater posters, digitally doctored with the name “Judith Bliss” listed as the star. Suzanne Mann’s costumes, brilliant art deco beaded gowns with peacock headdresses and such, are classic 1925 elegance. When the lights came on during one tableau, the audience broke into applause at the mere sight of it all.
I don’t have a clue why this play was so titled. No one ever sneezes or suffers any kind of allergic reaction. But perhaps, since the plot takes place in June, during the prime hay fever season, and since the entire Bliss family is like pollen, ever blowing in the faces of their socially complacent houseguests, perhaps it’s a perfect title.
In the right hands – director Schneider and company – this old jewel still shines brightly. It’s great fun.