1920s England was a time and place for shaking up the status quo and challenging social norms. In Noël Coward's "Hay Fever," however, an eccentric family's lack of social graces proves a bit much for its weekend guests. The light comedy, first staged in 1925, is part of Stanford Repertory Theater's 2015 Summer Festival: "Noël Coward: Art, Style & Decadence," which includes not only several live-theater events but also music, a symposium and a film series celebrating the witty British master.
In her "Hay Fever" program note, Director Lynne Soffer makes a reference to the television program "Seinfeld," and the comparison turns out to be apt. As in that "show about nothing," four self-absorbed characters alternately amuse and infuriate one another while outsiders bewilderedly enter their orbit without making an enduring impression on their universe.
The Bliss family lives as though it were perpetually in the spotlight, taking the idea of "all the world's a stage" to heart and making mountains out of every molehill, manufacturing emotions to feed its own insatiable appetite for drama.
Reluctantly spending the summer outside of London at the family's country home, the Blisses consist of celebrated actress and matriarch, Judith (Courtney Walsh), distracted novelist father, David (Bruce Carlton), would-be cartoonist son, Simon (Austin Caldwell) and saucy daughter, Sorel (the legitimately English Kiki Bagger), who's the most apparently self-aware of the clan. As she describes her family members, "They've spent their lives cultivating their arts and not devoting any time to ordinary conventions and manners and things. I'm the only one who sees that, so I'm trying to be better." Judith's former costume dresser, now servant, Clara (Catherine Luedtke) rounds out the household.
Each Bliss has, unbeknownst to the others, invited a special guest to stay for the weekend. Judith has asked her latest boy toy, Sandy (Andre Amarotico); Simon's invited his paramour and Judith's nemesis, Myra (Deb Fink); Sorel has asked her new diplomat suitor, Richard (Rush Rehm, who's also the company's artistic director); and David a young flapper he wants to study for his novel (Kathleen Kelso). The family members become furious with one another, fight over which guest will get the best bedroom, make dramatic pronouncements, quickly forget their anger and finally await their visitors. Said unwitting visitors arrive, entangle with the Bliss family in various ways (some switching romantic interests several times and all getting dragged into an intense charades game), realize the Blisses are enormously melodramatic, annoying, and possibly crazy and finally plot their exit strategy.
That's about it, but what counts is the brilliance of Coward's writing and the success with which this cast delivers it. Not a phrase goes by that isn't carefully crafted. When earnest Sandy, for example, reminds Judith that she'd promised him a quiet weekend to themselves, she responds nonchalantly, "I was wrong. It's going to be very noisy with herds of angry people stamping about." Walsh is blustery, over-the-top perfection as the diva who's ostensibly retired from acting but misses it so much that she must consistently create dramas in her own parlor, her every word and movement dripping with theatrics. Other standouts include Amarotico as young Sandy, inhabiting that certain type of nebbish, upper-class Englishman who starts sentences with "I say!" and peppers them with "rathers," as well as Rehm's ever-so-proper and sweet Richard, who struggles mightily to retain his pleasant and nonconfrontational manner in the face of the Bliss family's rudeness. Rehm's facial expressions and reactions are pure gold.
If the Blisses represent a bohemian family taking its disregard for proper manners to unpleasant extremes, an awkward and stilted small-talk scene between Richard and the ingénue Jackie, played very well by Kelso, serves as a perfect example of the other side -- politeness at its most painful -- as they struggle to discuss the weather, the countryside and various European countries, each of which in turn is designated as "lovely" and punctuated by long pauses.
Connie Strayer's costume design takes the players from day dress to sumptuous evening attire and back again in smashing style. The colors in each character's costume reflect their personality: black and deep velvet reds for the seductive Myra, pastels and virginal whites for the innocent Jackie. Judith receives the most outstanding costumes, as befitting her spotlight-starved status.
"Hay Fever" really is, as the director notes, an "inconsequential dish of pleasures." No one learns a moral lesson, meets their true love, resolves a conflict or receives a comeuppance. The family members are largely unlikable and possibly sociopathic, but an awful lot of fun to watch nevertheless. The play is purely a comedy of (poor) manners and an excellent opportunity to immerse oneself in Coward's fizzy, elegant world while feeling relief at not being stuck as a Bliss houseguest.
What: Noël Coward's "Hay Fever," presented by Stanford Repertory Theatre as part of the 2015 Noël Coward Festival
Where: Pigott Theater, Memorial Auditorium, 551 Serra Mall, Stanford
When: Through Aug. 9. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.