As vicarious fun goes, following about a party of squabbling hosts and befuddled guests at a country estate might not be much to recommend Hay Fever. But since the playwright is Noel Coward, this comedy of bad manners has a fighting chance to keep us laughing, as presented by Roger Williams University Theatre (through October 13) and directed by Dorisa Boggs.
We easily plunge into that 1925 world through Karl Pelletier’s elaborate three-level set, dominated by a central staircase that survives much storming up and creeping down, and by Priscilla Eighme’s costume design. An often neglected aspect, actors’ British accents, stick as though affixed by spirit gum, thanks to dialogue coach Stephanie Dean. In this decently acted college production, the proper tones, from petulant through giddy, are readily conveyed.
Judith Bliss (Lindsey Meyers) is the drama queen around which all the overwrought conflicts and romances whirl. She is a retired stage actress who is thinking of getting back to that occupation much like a fire horse thinks about getting back in harness — in other words, with a lot of snorting and fussing, in lieu of the actual hard work.
Judith has invited a hunky admirer, Sandy Tirell (Robert Saunders), a boxer smitten by her classy (to him) theatrical elegance. The rest of the Bliss family is similarly stirred up this weekend since each, without telling the others, has invited a house guest. Husband and father David (Michael Lewis) keeps them in champagne and caviar by virtue of churning out trashy novels that he admits are badly written. His current effort is titled The Sinful Woman. David’s house guest is Jackie Coryton (Amanda Reston), whom he describes as “the perfect flapper.” He had intended to study her like a pretty lab rat, but promptly ignores her.
Daughter Sorel (Casey Mandel) has the perceptiveness to point out to her brother Simon (Christopher O’Brien) that “we’re so ever bad mannered,” meaning her family, but that she wants to change. She’s invited Richard Greathem (Noah Starr), a gracious young man she repeatedly describes as a “diplomatist.” Simon’s guest is the cynical, pretty Myra Arundel (Kristin Durinick), an indiscriminate flirt.
As successful as she was, Judith is an actress like Big Ben is a timepiece, impossible to not notice as she swans across a room, impossible to not hear with her outrageous statements, such as that Myra “uses sex like a shrimping net.” Sorel is an overactor-in-training, aping her mother’s posturing and pouting and temperamental demands. Her brother Simon, an artist, now and then looks up from his drawing or daubing enough to join Sis in chewing the scenery: in a melodramatic scene from their mother’s hit Love’s Whirlwind, chests heaving in unison, and later when they invent a similar scene to terrify another one of the guests.
To the Blisses, their guests aren’t much more than human props or, more accurately, cardboard characters in their hosts’ impromptu dramatic improvisations to heighten a humdrum weekend. For example, in one scene that starts out low-key and natural, Greatham expresses honest admiration for an encouraging Judith. When he pecks her on a shoulder, she jumps up as though leaping from the wings into the final act of a drama, proclaiming that they must tell her husband everything. He looks as perplexed as someone having an actor’s nightmare in which he’s suddenly blanked on the entire story.
If this were a professional production, we might get some guidance and variety about when the Blisses are playfully toying with their victims, when they are being mean, when they are inviting them to let a lightbulb blink on above their heads and join in the fantasy, and so on. As it is, the Roger Williams troupe still delivers the highjinks and, after all, we’re no more confused than the Blisses’ poor prey.
This was only the fifth of more than 40 plays by Noel Coward, in addition to more than a dozen reviews and musicals and another 15 film scripts. But Hay Fever was his second West End hit, and he didn’t have to have polished his skills yet. The brief third act is anticlimactic, a calmed-down coda to the preceding bustle. Instead of building to a frenzy of resolutions, since each of the previous make-believe romances has fallen apart from their own flimsiness, nothing is left but to look back on the rubble. The play ends with the Blisses squabbling, typically and noisily, which allows their traumatized guests to tiptoe down the stairway with their luggage and escape, leaving the eccentric family to their own baggage.