Noël Coward himself described his breakout hit, Hay Fever as having “no plot at all, and remarkably little action…” The Olney Theatre Center’s production of this part-farce, part-comedy of manners, beautifully directed by Eleanor Holdridge, defies Coward’s self-effacing description, giving audiences a blessed union of physical and upper crust comedy that drowned out the theater on opening night.
As stated in the wonderfully detailed Dramaturg note, found in the show’s program, Noel Coward based Hay Fever on the talented and eccentric actress, Laurette Taylor and her playwright husband, ironically named J. Hartley Manners. As a regular guest in their home, he witnessed the epitome of today’s First World problems: temper tantrums and dramatic arguments over a silly game in which guests were to behave “in the manner of the word.” Coward and other guests were left to sit awkwardly, feeling ignored and utterly confused as to what just happened. This scenario is the foundation of the second act of this marvelous play, in which Coward allows audiences to laugh where he and the other baffled guests could not.
This show centers around the aptly named Bliss family: retired actress Judith (Valerie Leonard), writer David (Matt Sullivan), and their hopelessly immature children, Sorel (Audrey Bertaux) and Simon (Chris Dinolfo). The opening scene depicts Sorel and Simon behaving as bratty children engaging in leisurely activities that seem to be their only interests. The energy in the room explodes when their mother, the divine diva Judith Bliss, enters from the garden. From the first uttered word, the audience knows that Judith is an exhausting and exhilarating woman who can’t help but be adored, for she will have it no other way.
Valerie Leonard, as Judith, is a pro, and her portrayal would have made Noel Coward proud. She captures Judith’s scrappy fight against aging and irrelevance, giving us a real person doing unreal things. We want her to win, though we abhor her methods. She is laugh-out-loud funny in every moment, and her comic timing can’t be taught. The audience belly-laughed when she entered the room and kicked off her garden boots; this actress literally milks every moment perfectly. She, alone, is worth the price of admission.
Dinolfo is magnificent as Simon, embodying the genre and animating the landscape with his rubbery facial expressions and Raggedy Andy limbs. His slightly Oedipal relationship with his mother is silly and obvious, and his cat and mouse flirtation with girlfriend Myra (the absolutely perfect Beth Hylton, who floats through the entire show with impeccable timing and period-sophistication) is one of the highlights of the first act.
Sullivan has a Carradine-like presence as patriarch David, ambling into the living room in his tortured writer’s sweater, paying little attention to anyone but the characters in his story.
Bertaux’s Sorel is insufferable and bratty, sometimes to a point that makes it difficult for the audience to root for her. When Bertaux finds Sorel’s innocent adoration of her mother and true desire to stay a child, she emerges sweetly.
The house guests are offered up as hors d’oeuvres for the audience. The aforementioned Hylton’s Myra draws the eye to her whether she tries or not; her presence adds teeth to any scene and her smile, whether sarcastic or genuine, is infectious.
Jackie (Susan Lynskey) and Richard (Michael Russotto), strangers before sharing a cab to the Bliss home, create strong characters bewildered and enchanted simultaneously by the family. Lynskey has a way of moving her eyebrows, smirking through her pursed lips, and flicking her hands nervously, that endears her to the audience immediately. Her voice becomes another character in itself, and her reaction to the ostrich hanging from the wall is a priceless master class in non-verbal reactions.
Russotto plays the most grounded of the characters, clearly amused by the Bliss ladies but also fully aware that they are ridiculous. His energy balances the character landscape beautifully, and Russotto’s strong resemblance to Jeffrey Tambor is not just in looks.
Jon Hudson Odom plays Judith’s boytoy-du-jour Sandy Tyrell with utter shock and horror, constantly apologizing for his existence. Carol Randolph is lovely as the overworked, loyal housekeeper, Clara.
The set of Hay Fever is its own character, and what a formidable one it is! The rich old-money green walls with an artistic array of moose heads arching over the main doorway, contrast with the bohemian fabrics and little touches. It epitomizes the personality of this family as a whole: full of color and flaunting everyone’s achievements. The ostrich on the stage left wall is a discussion point before the cast members look at it, and it becomes yet another character as each guest reacts to it. The selection of fabrics, knickknacks, and taxidermic decorations is done with the utmost skill by Scenic Designer John Coyne.
Finally, let us not ignore the use of height. Coyne did not forget to use the vast amount of space that usually goes untouched by a designer. It added so much to the family’s sense of self-importance.
Special mention must go to Sound Designer Christopher Baine. From the opening music fade out into the phonograph’s fade in, Baine uses sound to enhance every scene while never detracting from it. When it begins raining, the sound of raindrops pattering on the roof is obvious but never drowns out the characters, and the very subtle level changes when doors are opened and closed are top-notch. There was not one moment that I wished a sound was louder, softer, stronger or subtler. Baine has an incredible ear and knows how to make you forget that there are sound effects.
Lighting Designer Nancy Schertler creates beautiful effects, most notably the gray, smoky din to accompany the gloomy rain that transitions to the bright morning sun. The effects are used subtly and effectively throughout the show.
Costume Designer Kendra Rai paints a portrait with her use of fabrics, colors, and decorative beading. Her intentionally oversized pants for Simon give him the appearance of being a boy who doesn’t know that his pants don’t fit, and every gown worn in Act II was the envy of every woman in the audience. A conversation was overheard in which someone remarked that she would love to have Judith’s purple dress and another said the mint green frock worn Lynskey was “to die for.”
Director Eleanor Holdridge crafts a perfectly needy family that struggles with bad manners and desperately requires validations of greatness. She uses her actors’ physical comedic skills and hilarious timing to her best advantage, making sure that the chemistry between all characters was electric no matter how they paired up. Her farcical in-door, out-door blocking was genre-perfect and her use of levels, including Judith’s tantrum on the floor of the living room, delighted the audience’s eyes as if in a candy store.
Take time out of your busy life to see Olney Theatre Center’s entertaining Hay Fever. Noel Coward’s semi-biographical portrait of a family that needs drama to survive will endear you to both him and the Bliss family. This is great theater not to be missed!
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one intermission.