Monday, August 4, 2008

Making Hay

Joel Colodner and Debera Lund catch a little Hay Fever.

We all know that dramatic effect is entirely dependent on the artist's perspective, not his or her material - but rarely has that verity been better demonstrated than in the current pairing of Chekhov's The Seagull with Noel Coward's Hay Fever at the Publick Theatre. Both plays deal with neurotic, theatrical families on holiday, headed by fading actresses enmeshed in unhappy love affairs - but there all similarity ends; the two texts seem to exist not merely in separate worlds but separate universes. Indeed, whether Chekhov's masterpiece is, in fact, a comedy or not, remains a matter of some debate; but there's no argument over Hay Fever - the play's a hoot, and it seems like forever since it's been seen in Boston (for some reason, in the current Coward revival, almost all the other major plays have come first).

The Publick's al fresco staging (don't worry, bug repellent's provided), isn't, perhaps, quite the streamlined vehicle one could wish for - the cast is too often working against type to really put the bloom on this gilded lily, and the direction, by Diego Arciniegas, never brings things to the ironically feverish pitch one would like. Still, Arciniegas and his cast have found a witty throughline through the text; the dialogue always sparkles, even if the antics don't, and that's more than enough to enchant an evening, if you ask me.

As in all Coward, the "plot" of Hay Fever is essentially a situation pushed to its extreme, then abandoned: the members of the bohemian Bliss family have each invited a benighted member of conventional society over for the weekend, unbeknownst to the others. The guests are generally intended as toys for the egoistical play of their sophisticated hosts: Judith, for instance, the family matriarch who may have retired from the professional stage but will never retire from the emotional one, has invited up a lunkheaded athlete to be smitten with her. Meanwhile her daughter and son, the spoiled Sorrel and Simon, are expecting potential sexual objects, too - she, a "daddy"-like diplomat, he a calculating vamp. Meanwhile father David, a hack novelist, has invited up a ditzy flapper to "study" for future fiction.

Needless to say, there's not enough room, or even enough food, for everyone on this weekend from hell, and the self-involved hosts don't so much entertain their guests as deploy them - everyone trades toys - in a fizzy series of parlor games designed to stave off boredom with theatrical "passion." The whole thing escalates to a wild re-enactment of one of Mom's most melodramatic hits, a stinking piece of cheese called Love's Whirlwind, which of course the family knows by heart but to the guests seems a flagrant display of something close to insanity.

In its witty portrait of the terminally unhip helpless before the hip, Hay Fever rather startling presages much later drama - it might almost be Albee without the malice; yet pondering it against The Seagull conjures few "vibrations," as Oscar Wilde might say, and the leftover set from the Chekhov at times looks a bit odd with Rafael Jean's flapper duds draped over it (it doesn't help that said duds look rather secondhand). Likewise, director Arciniegas, who's never really been known for his blocking, doesn't provide much in the way of comic action (I've seen at least one Hay Fever that built into a ballet of precise physical cues). And several key roles are clearly miscast - the common-sensical Debera Lund seems a world away from the blowsy aura of Judith Bliss, Ross MacDonald is far too robust a presence for the pissy Simon, and Robert Serrell an oddly self-aware choice for the blockheaded athlete, Sandy. Still, everyone seems to get in the spirit of things, at least superficially, and the verbal comedy is soon bubbling happily along.

Certainly the whole whirligig depends centrally on Lund, who may not make much of a diva, but whose clever insights into the bottomless vanity of the Blisses keep zinger after zinger popping from Coward's witty quiver of lines. Meanwhile MacDonald, in his Boston debut, may not nail the knowing narcissism of Simon, but he's smooth, capable, and sexy, and that's almost as good (something tells me we'll be seeing a good deal more of Mr. MacDonald on local stages). Even Serrell makes a surprisingly likeable Sandy.

On more solid ground are Lynn Guerra, who's both polished and temperamentally right as the petulant Sorrel, and the ever-dependable Joel Colodner, who makes surprisingly light work of the stodgy diplomat. Better still is Hannah Wilson as the dim flapper, who understands at once that she's completely over her empty little head (her duet of awkwardness with Colodner when they're abandoned in the hall is probably the best thing in the show). Alas, two actors put their feet decidedly wrong: Dafydd Rees seems to phone in his performance as the family patriarch, and Cheryl Turski makes the calculating Myra Arundel a cold, unclever (if sexy) fish; this doesn't do much harm to the general ensemble, but when they're left alone together, the missed beats pile up at an alarming rate. Luckily, however, the other Blisses soon dash in to pull focus, and the whole soufflé begins to rise again - which is what makes the Publick's Hay Fever, in the end, nothing to sneeze at.

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