Noel Coward’s Hay Fever:
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is currently offering an uneven revival of Noel Coward’s 1925 confection Hay Fever. However, there are enough goodies here to make the production worthy of your consideration.
Set in the English country house of the (both literally and figuratively) theatrical Bliss family, this comedy depicts the mayhem which ensues when, unbeknownst to one another, each of the four invites a guest of the opposite sex for a weekend dalliance in the country.
Randall Newsome, Jill Gascoine as Judith Bliss, and Edmond Genest
It is a deceptively damnable and devilish play to bring off. For Hay Fever to fully work its magic, extravagantly stylized interpretations of self-centered, oblivious characters are required. At the same time, the performers playing the humorously and inappropriately named Bliss family must convey a soupçon of human weakness in order for us to find their foibles endearing and human. They must also provide an ensemble interaction with each other in order for them to be believable as a family.
Although director Gabriel Barre has elicited several good performances from his cast, there is little sense of family or humanity among the various Blisses. Therefore, we fail to like or care about them as people. This causes much of the evening to drag.
Jill Gascoine, as the vain, fading actress Judith Bliss (the mother), is the best high style comedienne on stage and comes closest of all to capturing the underlying pathos of her role.
The other Blisses - father-novelist David (Edmond Genest), idler, self indulgent daughter Sorel (Katharine Leonard), and idler, incipient artist son Simon (Michael Kary) are played with little more than surface style.
The biggest laughs of the evening are corralled by Caitlin Miller as a clueless and humorless chorine. Hers is the most overtly comic role and she performs it with an over the top gusto which worked well with the opening night audience. The male guests as portrayed by Sean Dougherty and Randall Newsome are satisfactory foils. However, Cindy Katz as the most predatory of the guests is excessively charmless.
Building on a line in the play in which family servant Clara (Alison Weller) is identified as having been Judith’s stage dresser, Barre delightfully begins the second act by having Clara place props in the hands of the various players before moving them into their opening postures.
Most notably, there are three extended comedic set pieces, each of which works like a charm to produce delightful hilarity. The first is at the top of the second act when the Blisses and all of their guests gather for a game of “adverbs.” Sorel leaves the room while the others choose an adverb to be discovered by her. The method of discovery is for Sorel to ask each to perform a task in the manner of the adverb. The very visual and character based hilarity which ensues is comic theatre at its very best.
The second comic highlight occurs at the end of the second act when the Blisses abuse the conventional sensibilities of their guests and then transform their antics into a recreation of a play in which Judith has appeared. It is the first moment when we get a sense of ensemble and family from the Bliss interpreters.
The third such highlight is a brilliant scene which culminates with the final (third act) curtain. Only a cur would give it away. Director Barre and his entire cast finally pull all the necessary elements together here to show us how delightful the entire evening might have been. Possibly with more performances under their belt, the cast will get a better handle on the material.
The felicitous mood of the piece is nicely augmented by the summer bright set of James Wolk. Nicely lit by Michael Giannitti, it depicts a multi-level front parlor with the skeletal outlines of a door, a French door leading to the garden, and a window with a window box. It is backed by six colorful large panels featuring enlargements of depictions of flowers and insects. Karen A. Ledger’s period costumes are both apt and amusing.
Although the Kirby Shakespeare Theatre is a rather intimate space, the sound design, as it has in the past, proves to be a problem. In the rearward rows (located under a small balcony) of the ten row orchestra, there is a deadening and distortion in the sound which often causes it to be difficult to hear comfortably. With British accents added to the mix, many words, particularly in the early going, are indecipherable. When an early, I would imagine, Beatrice Lillie recording of Coward’s “I’ve Been to a Marvelous Party” is played from an onstage speaker at the beginning of the second act, the sound seems directed to the front rows, and the lyric can only be dimly heard further back. There is no excuse for the ongoing difficulty in hearing with ease in so small a venue.
With Hay Fever, Coward, the delightful and multi-talented Englishman who deprecatingly labeled himself as a man with “just a talent to amuse,” has bequeathed us a delightfully theatrical drawing room comedy which has sufficient timeless wit, cleverness and insight to remain a pure delight. However, director Gabriel Barre’s production of this minor classic only sets off intermittent sparks.
Hay Fever continues performances through August 1 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s Kirby Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue at Lancaster Road, Madison, New Jersey, 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600; online www.ShakespeareNJ.org.
Hay Fever by Noel Coward; directed by Gabriel Barre. Cast: (in order of appearance): Alison Weller (Clara); Katharine Leonard (Sorel Bliss); Michael Kary (Simon Bliss); Jill Gascoine (Judith Bliss); Edmond Genest (David Bliss); Sean Dougherty (Sandy Tyrell); Cindy Katz (Myra Arundel); Randall Newsome (Richard Greatham); Caitlin Miller (Jackie Coryton)