Hay Fever by Noel Coward. Directed by Kate Gulliver. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Stephanie Tanaka, Richard Lapo, Cathy Lee-Visscher, David Edward Campbell, Neal Berntson, Meg Dooley; photo: Dan Region
Mike Meier, Meg Dooley, Caitlyn Mazzacano; photo: Dan Region
"Everything that happens is fate. Thatís always been a great comfort to me."
A good comedy is hard to find and when a light, frivolous play is written by Noel Coward, author of "Private Lives" and "Blithe Spirit" and "Design for Living," it must be assumed that this is a comedy, one that will play well and get laughs. "Hay Fever," now on stage at the Ghent Playhouse, would be assumed to be just such a play. A good comedy on Broadway should rack up at least 350 performances. "Hay Fever" in four productions from 1925 through 1985, counted up together, lasted only 292 performances. Yet, it is considered classic Coward.
It has starred, in these four runs, a quartet of classically funny female stars: Laura Hope Crews (49 perfs), Constance Collier (95 perfs), Shirley Booth (24 perfs), and Rosemary Harris (129 perfs). If these women cannot pull off the role of Judith Bliss, who could? Based on American actress Laurette Taylor whom Coward adored in "Peg Oí My Heart" the character is an odd mixture of stereotypical "actress" and lover/automaton with a dash of morality-militant thrown in for good measure. Created by George Bernard Shaw she might have been a cornerstone of British matriarchy; Oscar Wilde would have had her more openly wanton and wantingly lovely. For Coward she is somewhat more pedestrian a symbol of the world in which he traveled, half reality and half make-believe with neither half prevailing.
The cast in Ghent does what it can with the material. They donít have much on which to hang performances, but each actor gives credible service to the Coward creation they have been assigned. Thereís no plot or storyline to carry them far along the path to success, however. The four members of the Bliss family each have invited a weekend guest to the country. They are poor hosts and self-indulgent egotists and basically ignore and embarrass their guests, standing them up to play with others briefly before forgetting them entirely. The guests go home.
Coward does set up some marvelous interactions, however, and these all play out with the requisite laughs from the audience. Thatís the good side. On the bad side, there are just too many shallow and selfish people on the stage for anyone to become sympathetic. Perhaps our hearts go out to the least reasonable person in the family room of the country house, a fellow named Richard Greatham, invited by Sorel Bliss, the daughter, ignored by her, who falls under the spell of the mother, Judith, an actress whose best days, if not years, are behind her. We lose interest in him in Act Three, but by then we have basically lost interest in everyone.
Richard Lapo plays Greatham with a clean, unfailing faith in his fellow man. There is something so simply honest about him that when he tries to get into the spirit of a game he comes up a total loser, not even realizing that he has screwed it up. You have to love a man like that. Lapo pulls his character into the center spotlight several times without seeming to hog anything. He has a charm that pervades and then falls into an abyss when he is clearly despised by the other characters on stage. Itís a lovely performance.
Meg Dooley almost manages to make Judith as enthralling as her character believes herself to be. She has the most difficult role to play. Judith is always in a spotlight, always on stage. She has no honest moments and the difficulty Dooley has is identifying through varying style the moments when her actress is acting for real and when she is acting for an unseen, vast audience. Playing someone who is meant to be artificial and making her real is almost impossible so Dooley cannot be faulted for not getting it right. Presumably neither did Shirley Booth or the others.
Caitlyn Mazzacano plays Sorel and Mike Meier her brother Simon. They are both working as hard as they can to get the characters, often at the loss of maintaining a sense of the period in which their characters are living, 1925. She carries it off better than he does, but he has a charm that almost works for Simon in the second act. Iíd love to see them together in something else sometime. They are very very good together on stage.
David Edward Campbell is just fine as David, the patriarch of the Bliss family. If perhaps a bit too American that can be an acceptable choice for a man who is a cypher in a room full of jigsaw puzzle pieces. As his flapper interest (a role that is so confusing that we want to cry right along with her) Jackie Coryton actress Stephanie Tanaka gives a formless performance. She is not to be blamed here because Coward has not given her any consistency with which to work. Jackie is not a flapper, she only wears the trappings of one. The most out-of-place character in the play she does not even seem to serve a purpose other than to pair off with three men in a day and a half. And she is most likely a virgin to boot.
Neal Berntson is fine as Sandy, a role that has only one point - he came by car. Cathy Lee-Visscher does remarkably well, and is most Cowardian, in the role of Myra Arundel, a femme fatale who has the one-liners, the zingers, the most men in her men and the worst defined character history in the entire Coward canon. We are never sure of who or what she is. In spite of this Lee-Visscher makes us like the woman and sympathize with her now and then. Thatís a triumph.
Funniest character on the stage is Clara, the Maid, played beautifully, if somewhat Thelma Ritter-like, by Ellen Lieberman. I donít think Coward meant for Clara to outshine Judith, but she does.
Director Kate Gulliver has worked with her cast to create an image of a time gone by when fecklessness counted for something. The task is daunting and she has worked hard at it, but the payoff, at the end, is just not there. Timing the laughs is hard when laughs donít come. Stretching the reality button is difficult when so much seems so artificial - including the flowers. This play is funnier than "Ralph Roister-Doister" but it is just as hard to make it work.
She has had ample assistance from the superb costumes by Joanne Maurer and the excellent set by Bill Camp. Lighting Designer Dave Malsan and Stage Manager Mary Reardon need to tighten light cues so that scenes button rather than linger. Accent Coash Burnell Shively gets kudos.
With such an infrequent list of successful productions you may not have many more opportunities to see this uniquely quirky play by Noel Coward. I happen to like his work so I would recommend that you go while you can. Just donít confront me about it not being very funny. Iíve told you that up front. What it is, to be straightforward, is something you wonít see often: a very personal look at the quirky folk of the theater.
Hay Fever plays through October 31 at the Ghent Playhouse in Ghent, New York. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-392-6264.