ARE YOU BEING SERVED?: English country-house antics at the St. Lawrence.
In this lovely house in Cookham, England, life is only about bliss. About the Family Bliss, that is. All four members are so dramatic, vain, and careless that they can’t be expected to consider others. Every one of them has invited a paramour to the house for the weekend, and only thinks to let the others know as zero hour — and a veritable zoo of aristocratic English people — approaches. Good Theater stages the fickle and infuriating affections of the entire Bliss family in Hay Fever, one of Noel Coward’s early comedies, under the direction of Brian Allen and Robert Fish.
First of all, young Sorel Bliss (Jessica Peck, with lovely, blithe arrogance) has invited a diplomatist named Richard (Stephen Underwood) to the house for the weekend, and one would think he would come in handy as the house fills. Her brother Simon (agile Ian Carlsen) has also entreated a visit from his own current interest, the socialite widow Myra Arundel (Elizabeth Chambers, utterly and exquisitely blasé). Then there are the heads of the house. Sorel and Simon’s mother Judith (the formidable Denise Poirier), a retired stage actress, has invited fresh-faced ingénue boxer Sandy (Brian Chamberlain) for a little rejuvenation. Finally, Bliss père David (Tony Reilly), a self-absorbed novelist, has called upon a flighty flapper (Carolyn Turner) for his own weekend inspiration.
Needless to say, as these various assignations collide in the parlor, the histrionics escalate. Who, for example, will sleep in the Japanese room? Plus, the kitchen runs short on victuals, the maid grows surly, everyone’s attractions wander shamelessly, and the Bliss house starts to feel a bit small. In creating this whimsical English home, set designer Craig Robinson worked with the charming notion that Judith had managed to make off with a piece of furniture from each of her stage shows. The result — a sitting room that’s quirkily mismatched for all its luxury — makes a fine setting for the maverick interpersonal dramatics that ensue.
The script calls for plenty of farcically timed entrances and exits from this main room (to and from the upstairs, the garden, the cars, and the kitchen), but some of the play’s best moments trap everybody in one place at once. Especially good fun is the scene in which the assorted guests and family members gather for a parlor game. They send Sorel into the garden while the company decides on a word that she must, upon returning, guess. Between the bewildered playing-along of the guests (Richard is commanded to “light a cigarette in the manner of the word"), the droll put-downs (Judith takes particular aim at Jackie), and the general egotism and bickering, the scene is a sublime send-up of the English leisure class — and the host family from hell.
This Allen/Fish cast is as scintillating as I’ve come to expect from the virtuoso Good Theater, and it’s particularly fun to see actors from elsewhere in the theater community, like Reilly, Carlsen, and Chambers, working alongside Good Theater regulars like Underwood, Peck, and Poirier.