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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

their hosts.

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

August 1.

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