Noel Coward’s plays are the great guilty pleasures of the English-speaking stage. Guilty because, for all his way with dialogue, Coward has next to nothing to say besides “People: you can’t live with ’em and you can’t live without ’em.”
Take all the best moments from Private Lives, Blithe Spirit and Present Laughter, and after the sugar buzz has passed, there’s not a nutrient to be found. But who in the world wants to live only on vitamins? Coward’s plays are pleasures because (when performed well) they’re witty, sophisticated and mellifluously musical. They play like one of those old photographs of Coward himself: wry, urbane, relaxed but also formal. And — importantly — the touch is light. There’s no room at all here for the garish or the vulgar.
Unfortunately, the current Jobsite Theater production of Coward’s wonderful Hay Fever takes the author for some sort of loudmouth farceur and ramps up characters and situations so intensely, you’d think you were watching Irma Vep or The Food Chain. There are saving graces — actors Caitlin Eason and Chris Jackson seem to belong in Coward’s world, and the play’s humor occasionally survives even the severest overstatements. But the central role of Judith Bliss is played with misguided exaggeration by the usually superb Caroline Jett, and director David Jenkins has his other actors turning this dry martini of an entertainment into a messy fruit punch spiked with tequila, and the result is an entertainment which feels crude, loud, and (ignorantly) campy. Add a midscale-looking set in what should be an upscale summer house, English accents that come and go like signals from a distant radio station, and you get — well, it’s not Noel Coward. Some lesser light, maybe, but not Noel Coward.
The heroes of Hay Fever are the delightfully eccentric Bliss family. Judith Bliss is a famous actress who retires from the stage every so often, David her husband is a successful novelist who’s always working on his next potboiler, and Sorrell and Simon are the daughter and son who know that their upbringing has been odd, but who are entirely comfortable in their skins nonetheless. On the same day each has a visitor: for Sorrell, the diplomat Richard Greatham, for Simon, the cougar Myra Arundel, for David, the ingénue Jackie Coryton, and for Judith, her young admirer Sandy Tyrell. Once all the guests arrive, there’s confusion, self-dramatizing, odd pairings, and, literally, some game-playing. None of the visitors are prepared for the all-tolerant Bliss clan, and none of the Blisses has enough of an attention span to make for a romance.
“Abnormal, Simon, that’s what we are,” says Sorrell, and she’s absolutely right. But they’re also wholly without malice, available for whatever the world may throw at them, and as innocent as big babies. You don’t want to get mixed up with them, but you’ve gotta admit they’re kind of lovable.
At the center of the action is diva Judith, who at any moment might slip into the dialogue of one of her favorite vehicles, and who needs a few intrigues just to make the day pass happily. The important point here is that Judith is a fine actress — and not the hyperbolic ham that Jett portrays her as being. By playing her as an overdone amateur whom no thinking producer would ever hire, Jett misses the point that it’s the plays that Coward’s mocking, not the talent of the player. Owen Robertson as her writer husband has another problem altogether: he seems to have no life outside his dialogue, and you can hardly imagine him creating characters on a page. As Simon, Spencer Meyers might have walked out of a Chris Durang farce — he’s extreme and neurotic, a character in a joke about psychoanalysis; and as “diplomatist” Greatham, Michel C. McGreevy isn’t even convincingly English, much less diplomatic. When so many parts are misplayed, much of the fault has to lie with the director; but somehow Eason and Jackson escape the general muddle and show us characters out of (believe it or not) a Noel Coward comedy. Each is clean and precise, bright and crisp as a witticism (Myra Arundel uses sex, says Judith, “as a sort of shrimping net”). But they can’t change the general tone of the evening. And starting us out in the wrong direction is Brian Smallheer’s set, which is dominated by a frumpy sofa and walls that look like plasterboard. Katrina Stevenson’s costumes, though, are nicely designed, as is Smallheer’s lighting.
Bottom line: don’t be misled. Hay Fever’s better than this. In a good production (and I’ve seen one), it’s sharp and suave and, above all, hilarious. You’ve got to meet the real Bliss family.
You just won’t meet them here.