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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the July 21, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Review: ‘Hay Fever’
Critics are not known or prone to laugh aloud. But I did unashamedly
during some choice moments in the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey’s
extremely well staged production of Noel Coward’s devilishly funny
"Hay Fever." The door bell rings. Clara, the maid, reluctantly goes to
the front door, opens it, turns abruptly and departs allowing the
swinging door to shut in the face of the visitor. It’s a bit of
repeating schtick that gets funnier in sequence.
Accused over the years of having no plot and virtually no action, this
silly but scathing portrait of a chaotic and self-centered theatrical
family is just chock-full of everything you always wanted to know
about manners, or the lack of them. The play has been known to succeed
or falter on the performance of its leading lady. In this case, the
play succeeds beautifully even if the leading lady falters.
Inspired by Coward’s own memories of his weekends coping with
eccentricities of famed and lauded actress Laurette Taylor and her
playwright husband, Hartley Manners, in their New York apartment
during the mid-1920s, Coward’s sweet revenge is a playful retaliation
for some of his hosts’ rudeness and self-centeredness. Director
Gabriel Barre and his cast for the most part make playfulness the key
word in this admirable production.
The action of the play takes place at the Bliss’ country home in
Cookham, England, where each of this highly strung family of egotists
has invited his/her current infatuations for the weekend. Between
Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, just about everyone has switch
hit and struck out. The guests, subjected to the most devastatingly
outrageous humiliations possible among civilized people, are seen
seduced and abandoned with the greatest of self-serving esprit by
Director Barre, who staged a well-received "Pericles" for the
Shakespeare Theater in 2002, as well as putting his stamp on numerous
Off-Broadway productions, has pulled off Coward’s difficult play by
pulling out all the right stops and then some. Barre has staged the
play with great invention and within an inch of outright over-the-top
hysteria. Yet he has still graced it with dazzling attention paid to
Coward’s insistently metronomic style. His stamp is what makes this
comedy work as well as it does: a stony high tea becomes high comedy.
But why couldn’t sound designer Richard M. Dionne have done something
about the muddy sound of the segue music of classic/comic tunes sung
by the great Bea Lillie.
I wish I could say the play reflected the stamp of Jill Gascoine, a
veteran actress of the British stage, who plays the comedy’s central
eccentric. As the semi-retired actress Judith Bliss, Gascoine attempts
to prove the theory that less charm is more. It doesn’t quite work. As
the semi-retired actress Judith Bliss, Gascoine appears eager and
willing to swoop and swirl from one larger-than-life gesture to the
next. But, where beneath her all-too-synthetic affectations,
obligatory as they might be, are the unspoken anxieties of an actress
past her bloom but still wallowing in the radiance of her own aura? In
a role that needs, if not demands, charm coming out of every pore,
Gascoine almost gets lost in the whirl of everyone else’s gauche
panache. Her best moment comes while seated at the grand piano where
she sweetly sings a song written in the Coward style by composers John
Kander and Fred Ebb for the 1985 Broadway revival.
The incorrigible Bliss family which includes David (Edmond Genest),
Judith’s second-rate novelist husband; Sorel (Katherine Leonard), the
overwrought daughter; Simon (Michael Kary), the dilettante son, and
Clara (Alison Weller), their outspoken maid who seems to be the only
one capable of stopping everyone in their tracks with just a look.
They each find their match, for the most part, with their guests.
Not quite up to speed at opening night, Genest seems at best tentative
in speech and activities, a factor that diminishes the role’s comic
potential, particularly in an awkward scene where he attempts to
seduce one of the weekend guests. Although Leonard’s high pitched
screeching tends toward irritating, she has as keen a sense of what is
at stake as does Kary, whose use of hyper kinetic acrobatics in his
amorous pursuits get the laughs they prompt. It was clever of Barre to
give the maid more to do than merely hold everyone in contempt. As
played with service-with-a-smirk perfection by Weller, Clara has been
given a plum assignment: to set the mood of a new scene by molding a
tableau vivant of these artfully posing eccentrics.
The unfortunate victims of this loony weekend in the country are
Richard (Randall Newsome), a stuffy and proper gentleman, Jackie
(Caitlin Miller), a wimpy wallflower; Sandy (Sean Dougherty), a young
brawny boxer; and Myra (Cindy Katz), a troublemaking vamp. They are
all abused and tossed about with abandon within designer James Wolk’s
handsome country living room setting featuring huge rear wall panels
of grand floral designs. The entire company can be said to either
lounge or lunge about in some extremely attractive Roaring 20s attire
designed by costumer Karen Ledger.
"Hay Fever" opened in London in 1925 with Marie Tempest. Later that
year it opened in New York with Laura Hope Crews. Shirley Booth
starred in the next Broadway production in 1970. My own fond memories
of this captivating comedy include a McCarter Theater production in
1980 starring Celeste Holm, and a Broadway production starring
Rosemary Harris in 1985.
– Simon Saltzman
"Hay Fever," Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey (on the campus of Drew
University), 36 Madison Avenue, Madison. $34 to $48. 973-408-5600. To
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