Hold on to the lightness and vivacity of summer for just a little while longer with Olney Theatre Center’s spirited, spun-sugar confection production of Nöel Coward’s Hay Fever.
Director Eleanor Holdridge has conjured up a chic staging that moves with galloping grace. A summer weekend in the country has never been so soignee. The look of the show is like an Erte fashion spread—from the drop-waist period frocks in lustrous hues and darling hats created by costume designer Kendra Rai to John Coyle’s scenic design of the posh Bliss country house filled with luxurious fabrics, throw pillows, art nouveau paintings, a winding staircase and an amusing grouping of taxidermy antlers and heads on the high walls.
Coward, who wrote Hay Fever in 1924 at the absurdly young age of 25, based the Bliss family antics on the eccentric behavior of actress Laurette Taylor and her husband, playwright J. Hartley Manners. As a frequent guest in their home, Coward witnessed all manner of outrageous goings-on, capturing them in a classic comedy that endures as a hilarious primer on how not to entertain visitors.
The estate is not exactly lorded over—perhaps lady-ed over is a better phrase—by Judith Bliss (Valerie Leonard), a recently retired West End actress for whom all the world is a stage, even her private home. She makes her entrance with the spectacular splash of a pro—swanning in from the garden in a ruffly floral frock, flower-bedecked picture hat…and galoshes.
Judith never met a moment she couldn’t turn the spotlight on herself. When her self-absorbed progeny—bestowed with the first world names Sorel (Audrey Bertaux) and Simon (Chris Dinolfo)—bicker luxuriantly in her presence, she manages to divert their attention to her needs, which apparently, like the Nile, are bottomless.
Even Judith’s Lady Bountiful routine cannot smooth over the conundrum facing the Bliss household this particular weekend. Judith has invited an agreeably devoted fan, a strapping young boxer and athlete named Sandy Tyrell (Jon Hudson Odom) down from London for a bit of flirting.
She is not amused to discover that Sorel has also asked an older man, an assured diplomat named Richard Greatham (Michael Russotto), for the weekend, as has brother Simon arranged for his squeeze Myra Arundel (Beth Hylton) to pop over for a cuddle. Completing the multiple love triangles is novelist father David Bliss (Matt Sullivan), who has invited a gamine-like flapper, Jackie Coryton (Susan Lynskey) to the house for “research purposes.”
Judith’s former dresser, now housekeeper, Clare (Carol Randolph) frets about running out of rooms and food for the unexpected guests. Yet the problem is deeper than that—it lies with the Blisses. Resolutely in love with themselves and their bohemian ways, they have no room in their heads to consider the wants and even the feelings of other people. So the guests are marooned in a colorful, crazy-making house for three days while the Blisses perform a play of their own design. The guests, of course, are not part of the ensemble cast.
However, the tight ensemble assembled for Olney’s production work like a swanky team, executing the manners and mannerisms of society swells with style and ease. The set’s multiple doors and staircase make for all types of farcical entrances and exits, which grow more manic and mirthful as the weekend progresses.
For all their narcissism, the Blisses do come across as a loving family unit, everyone indulgent of quirks and supportive of artistic pursuits—whether it is acting (Judith), art (Simon), writing (David) or the role of muse (Sorel).
September 2 – October 4, 2015
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd.
2 hours with 1 intermission
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $40 – $65
As the family’s melodramatic patriarch, Leonard’s generous acting style is put to excellent use playing the effusive Judith. Lavish of gesture and rolling her vowels like they are caviar on the tongue, Leonard gives Judith the power to take over any and all rooms. Her largesse is obvious, but she also nails the details of her portrayal, whether chomping down on a cigarette holder and flicking through a magazine in irritation as her children quarrel or patting a pillow just so.
As the petulant Sorel and Simon, Bertaux and Dinoflo huff and fling themselves about like butterflies fluttering around a queen bee. Their youthful energy and unfinished quality fill the stage with lightness, as does Odom as the peppy, can-do Sandy, who has snap in his suspenders.
They are, however, no match for the more mature performers, starting with Leonard and continuing with Russotto’s puffed-up bonhomie as the diplomat Richard, Hylton’s maddeningly vampy moves as the clever Myra and particularly Lynskey’s inspired Jackie, a lower-class tootsie cast among a nest of upper crust vipers.
With her kewpie doll-wide eyes, squeaky little voice and demure cackle, Lynskey gets more mileage out of trotting across the floor than most actors can achieve in a soliloquy. Lynskey’s Jackie may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but she shines the brightest.
Hay Fever by Noel Coward . Directed by Eleanor Holdridge . Featuring Audrey Bertaux, Valerie Leonard, Carol Randolph, Chris Dinolfo, Susan Lynskey, Michael Russotto, Beth Hylton, Jon Hudson Odom and Matt Sullivan. Scenic Design: John Coyne . Costume Design: Kendra Rai . Lighting Design: Nancy Schertler . Sound Design: Christopher Baine . Production Stage Manager: Josiane M. Lemieu . Produced by Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.