Although I can’t say I had an allergic reaction to Circle Theatre’s revival of Noël Coward’s “Hay Fever, ” I must admit my experience amounted to a disappointing case of loving the play, liking the production but hating the interpretation. Artistic Director Kevin Bellie has rounded up the usual suspects: director Jim Schneider, whose production of Coward’s “Design for Living” has deserved its praise; and actors Judith Hoppe, Bradford R. Lund, Jonathan Nichols and Catherine Ferraro, Schneider vets who use every arsenal in their laugh bag—from impeccable comic timing to the divine facial expression—to great comic effect. Not surprisingly then, Coward’s writing sparkles, gets the laughs in the usual places and has a jolly good time illustrating the struggle between a quartet of dysfunctional and arrogant egocentrics (the Bliss family), and four “normal” people (their guests for a weekend). My problem with Schneider’s interpretation of Coward is that here the normal people win out. Indeed, the production seems to shine a sympathetic light on its embarrassed bourgeoisie guests—the cloying dumb-as-a-rock flapper, the persnickety uptight diplomat, the bumbling obsequious fan and the predatory socialite—while making their outlandishly creative hosts—a best-selling novelist, a legendary stage actress, a painter and socialite—annoyingly off-putting. This would explain why the actors playing the guests admirably progress from outlandish caricatures to recognizable humans, while the others seem locked into a heavy-handed playing style that doesn’t serve their characters’ un-self-conscious and deliciously seductive snobbery. This might also explain why Bradford R. Lund’s son brunches in his boxers (everyone else is impeccably costumed for this scene) and chews his food with his mouth open. It’s a small detail, but one that illustrates the literal and figurative grotesquerie seemingly at odds with what I have always viewed as the play’s implicit and perhaps politically incorrect message: isn’t it more fun to be outrageously different and march to the beat of one’s own drum than be safe, dull and conventional? Maybe. Maybe not. But in a less-is-more, recession-plagued America, disdainful of elitism and privilege, wouldn’t it have been clever and deliciously irreverent of Mr. Schneider to have presented both arguments compellingly and let us decide? (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
At Circle Theatre, 7300 West Madison, Forest Park, (708)771-0700. Thu-Sat 8pm/Sun 3pm. $20-$26. Through August 24.