Elsewhere at this year’s Utah Shakespearean Festival, in “As You Like It,” you can hear someone recite the “all the world’s a stage” speech. But in “Hay Fever,” you can meet characters who live their lives as if this is literally true.
Written by that drollest of playwrights, Noel Coward, “Hay Fever” is an utterly inconsequential comedy about a wealthy, ill-mannered family with a flair for the dramatic. The legal head of the family, David Bliss (Jonathan Gillard Daly), is a novelist who spends most of his time upstairs. But the REAL head is his wife, Judith (Leslie Brott), who just last year retired from her career as a stage actress but who has never stopped performing.
They have two adult children, Sorel (Mary Dolson) and Simon (Matt Schwader), both lazy and talented, and both having inherited much of their dispositions from their mother. This is England, and it is the 1920s, so there is a good deal of tea-drinking and garden-touring going on at the Bliss home, and very little real work.
The play takes place one Saturday, when each family member has, unbeknownst to the others, invited an acquaintance down for the weekend. Judith has invited Sandy Tyrell (Brian Vaughn), a young admirer who didn’t realize she was married; visiting Simon is Myra Arundel (Anne Newhall), a semi-girlfriend whom Judith describes as a “self-conscious vampire”; Sorel has asked a stuffy diplomat named Richard Greatham (Kieran Connolly); and David’s guest is Jackie Coryton (Kelly Lamont), a flapper he barely knows and quickly forgets.
There are party games and other social interactions, but the Blisses are most interested in themselves. Each Bliss barely cares about his or her invited guest, and even less about those invited by other family members. The guests, of course, are perplexed at their behavior: The Blisses are acting in accordance with human nature, rather than with established rules of etiquette. Heaven forbid!
To the extent that “Hay Fever” is “about” anything, it’s about the incongruity between the way wealthy people appear, and the way they actually behave. But even that is stretching it, in terms of a point or a message. Witness the final scene, where the family is so embroiled in a pointless argument over the geography of Paris that they barely notice their guests escaping, and see if you still think “Seinfeld’s” trivial banter was innovative.
There is much to like in every performance here. Leslie Brott’s withering, dramatic looks as Judith are priceless; she is a USF regular who has a gift for comic acting, especially in formal or imperious roles. Ditto Brian Vaughn, who is sinfully underused as Judith’s admirer, but who gets a chance to shine in a solo scene where he stealthily eats eggs. (You’d have to see it.)
As the siblings, Mary Dolson and Matt Schwander play youthful irresponsibility perfectly, she with her enthusiastic pouting and he with a careless, loose-limbed attitude that has him flopping all around the set. Both are funny. You also must see Kieran Connolly, during a game similar to Charades, attempt to light a cigarette “saucily.”
Director Paul Barnes keeps things moving at a good clip, though there is a tedious bit of scene-setting by Carrie Baker as the maid before the final scene, necessitated by everyone else having a costume change. It’s a fabulously worthless play full of fast one-liners and memorably eccentric characters.
What does the title have to do with the play? Is it some British thing? I should look it up, but I don't feel like it.