NOEL COWARD IS a master of the one-liner, scoring them so quickly and skillfully that the uproarious chaos never lets up. Just such "words! masses and masses of words" that are "such great fun to play with" make the Kirkland House production of Hayfever a delightful evening of ridiculous hysteria.
The story is a poke-in-the-ribs at the absurd histrionics of the Bliss family (a quasi-retired actress, her hack-writing husband, and their two long-suffering children) who invite four similarly foolish characters for a weekend in the English countryside. The plot unravels with the reception and treatment of the guests, and winds up with the visitors making a furtive escape after one memorable night.
Coward once said of Hayfever that aspiring non-professionals often mistake the play as easy-to-act because of its small cast and use of a single set. But to him Hayfever was a very difficult play to perform. Director Chase Wilson may have harbored an illusion of facility at one time, but the finished product demonstrates her understanding of the complexities of this play. Her production sparkles with most of the necessary wit and style needed to bring off an amateur show.
Since the play lacks any real plot or action, its effectiveness depends on the acting techniques. Wilson has assembled a cast that, albeit inexperienced, has enough native talent to support Coward's barrage of language. Ann Bailen as Judith Bliss--wife, mother, and fading actress--musters just the right amount of scatter-brained style and melodramatic intensity to project this pivotal character. Her dramatic confrontations with the family and guests are some of the best scenes of the evening--she flounces, bounces, and sweeps across the stage in frenzied disarray, acting out her wildly theatrical interpretation of reality. Opposite her as Mr. Bliss, John Sprague deadpans his lines, cynical and restrained, providing a welcome respite from the nervous pace of the rest of the show.
The major failing of the production is the miscasting of Mary Layne Aherne as Sorel Bliss, the scheming, ambitious Bliss daughter. She anticipates her lines on several occasions and her diction is atrocious. Seemingly uncomfortable with her role, her acting is consistently wooden and artificial.
Of the lesser characters, the four guests all do a creditable job, particularly Alden Watson as Richard Greatham. His style of controlled bewilderment and priggish dismay enlivens the potentially flat role of the conservative diplomat. Jill Abramson vamps madly in her part as the inane and brainless ingenue, but her squeaky voice, exaggerated walk, and batting eyes quickly become tiresome. Joanna Blum is convincing as the sophisticated woman-about-town who tries (to no avail) to pull the Bliss family out of their hopeless theatrics. She, like Abramson, has a formula of winking eyes and sleek walk which loses its charm after repeated usage.
Egle Zygas's set takes full advantage of the woodpaneled Kirkland room and creates an atmosphere of Bliss ludicrousness with a few well-placed touches such as posters of Judity Bliss's most famous roles. The addition of Henry Griggs at the piano singing (off-tune) at the beginning and end of each scene supplies an unexpected dash of distanced humor.
The Bliss household may be a "featherbed of false emotions," but there is little in this generally exuberant and fast-paced production to stop one from enjoying the high farce which results.