Life is just bad theater, theater is just lightly polished life in Noël Coward’s “Hay Fever,” tellingly subtitled, “A Comedy of Bad Manners.” Under Terry McCabe’s crisp direction, the 1925 play comes saucily to life, its portrayal of showbiz self-absorption and social insensitivity as fresh and stinging as an Oscar-night slap.
Deftly maneuvering nine highly distinct characters around City Lit’s small, off-center stage, McCabe finds room for both the script’s sardonic wit and the visual humor of farce, as every entrance and exit signals a new and outrageous plot development. The result is a two-hour-plus soap bubble of a play that doesn’t float far before popping, leaving us laughing—and perhaps a bit wiser about the not-always-nice nature of creativity and the artistic temperament. However slight the story, it still makes for a ripping good time, as these posh Jazz Age characters might put it.
Supposedly based on a fraught visit that Coward himself suffered through at the home of American actress Laurette Taylor and her writer husband, “Hay Fever” charts the breakdown of hospitality that occurs over a summer weekend when no fewer than four unrelated visitors converge upon the chaotic, eccentric Bliss domicile in the London suburbs. We learn that all four members of the Bliss family—actress-diva Judith, her self-involved novelist husband David, and their raised-by-wolves adult children, Sorel and Simon—have invited a guest of the opposite sex to stay overnight without consulting the others, in a display of mutual and apparently habitual obliviousness. Predictable hijinks ensue, as trivial romances blossom and wither from moment to moment.
What isn’t quite so predictable is the nasty resentment that the various Blisses express toward the visitors foisted upon them, even though they’ve all contributed to the crowding. The hosts are making clear to their invited guests that they can never be more than extras in the narcissistic family drama of these entitled artistes, whose lives are as garish and random as the bric-a-brac—including a tasseled boar’s head and belly-dancing costume—that adorn Ray Toler’s baroquely overstuffed set.
McCabe, the longtime artistic director at City Lit, has cast the show well, with all nine of his choices hitting the dominant note of their role. Travis Shanahan and Lizzie Williams are perfectly peevish as the spoiled children, while Stephen Fedo is convincingly detached and superior as David, the patriarch of this messed-up ménage. The four visitors—Robert Hunter Bry as empty-headed boxer Sandy, Elizabeth Wigley as scheming socialite Myra, Melissa Brausch as the oddly shy flapper Jackie, and Gerrit Wilford as too-tactful diplomat Richard—are trying to obtain from the Blisses a touch of the excitement, glamour and culture missing from their own conventional lives. They’re slumming in Bohemia, seeking authenticity or at least a thrill. Meanwhile, the Blisses are making equal and opposite use of their visitors, turning their ever-increasing bafflement and discomfiture into theatrical effects and story plot points.
The action pivots around Judith, the nonstop drama queen whose craving for attention and worship keeps everyone hopping. With her rouged lips, darting eyes and gesticulating hands, Betsy Pennington Taylor nails the part of the aging seductress who has been onstage so long that her life has become half Victorian melodrama, half screwball comedy. There’s a fine moment when, walking up the stairs, she “spontaneously” cranes her face above a floor lamp to accentuate her histrionics. Equally fun to watch, albeit in a smaller part, is the impeccable Marssie Mencotti as the housekeeper Clara, who has put up with a great many Bliss family surprises over the years, and who isn’t pleased to learn that she will be cooking for eight, not four. Mencotti’s pointed enunciation of the single word “imposition” says more about class conflict than the collected works of Marx and Engels.
If there’s a problem in the show, it’s that we’re never sure which of these off-kilter characters we’re supposed to identify or sympathize with. But maybe that’s the point. For all its playfulness, this is a hard, cool work, full of sharp situational observations about the complicated bond between Bohemian artists and their bourgeois fans. Each needs the other, but the stage or screen or printed page creates a distance between them that can never quite be breached. No wonder that every attempt at real connection or relationship in “Hay Fever” ends in an allergic reaction. (Hugh Iglarsh)
“Hay Fever” at City Lit Theater, 1020 West Bryn Mawr (773)293-3682, citylit.org, $34 (discounts available). Through October 9.