Times change. And although Noel Coward might have once been the voice of urbane wit, the dialogue in his 1925 play Hay Fever now seems a bit dated.
And the play, with virtually no plot and little action, is inherently difficult to perform.
These problems were evident in the first act of Colonial Players' production in Annapolis. Some performances were charming and convincing, but the dialogue often suffered from being written in a long-gone era, and the characters seemed overblown.
Written to compel the audience to read characters' thoughts, Hay Fever promotes a labored interchange, which weighs down Coward's trademark lightness and transforms dialogues into monologues.
Hay Fever opens with Judith and David Bliss' grown children, Simon and Sorel, lolling about their country home contemplating the weekend. Soon, recently retired actress Judith enters, enthusing on the joys of gardening.
Later, novelist David joins his wife and children for tea, where family members eventually discover that each has invited a weekend guest - with four guests destined for the Japanese Room, which accommodates only one. Nobody has informed the others of any plans to invite guests until it's too late to cancel invitations.
From the time she sweeps into the room in printed chiffon and a pink straw garden hat, Mary Groom radiates charm, wit and warmth as Judith Bliss. Having based Judith on actress Laurette Taylor, Coward described her as "naive, intolerant, lovable and entirely devoid of tact" - characteristics that Groom simulates, spicing her portrayal of the retired actress and mother with a manipulative self-centeredness.
Others offering solid performances in Colonial Players' production include Patrick Reynolds as Simon Bliss, who banters with his sister Sorel, cajoles mother Judith and lusts for his invited guest Myra Arundel (Karen Lambert). Lew Cronin is the model of restraint as Sorel's guest, diplomat Richard Greatham. In a standout scene with Groom, he hilariously exhibits growing confusion at Judith's antics. As Judith's theatrical dresser-turned-maid Clara, Angie Dey stalks around the stage bringing laughs to her chores.
As Judith's daughter Sorel, who tries to bring a semblance of normality to her family, Niji Ramunas is not always believable. For part of the first act, Ramunas adopts a strange-sounding English accent, which thankfully disappears, and she is not always able to deliver the fast-paced mood swings and subtle shadings the role requires.
Karen Lambert seems miscast in the role of seductive Myra Arundel, conveying the cool detachment of a career woman rather than the siren heat Simon expected to find when he invited her to be his guest. Rather than educating Simon, Myra wants to lure away Judith's husband David, intentions not always conveyed by Lambert's restrained performance. Later when Myra angrily confronts the Bliss family with her frustrations, Lambert again seems to need to turn up her thermostat.
Noel Milan is believable as David Bliss, becoming hilarious when garbling Paris geography in his just-completed novel. Rebecca Ellis is delightful as David's guest, the painfully shy Jackie Coryton, conveying her misery at being forced to play a ridiculous family game and later relaxing with Judith's young guest, Sandy Tyrell, as she tries to cure his hiccups.
Everyone seems to be mismatched, with both Mr. and Mrs. Bliss having invited guests who are a generation younger, while their adult children's guests are at least a generation older than they.
Dean Davis is believable as young American Sandy Tyrell, conveying his eagerness to know Judith better and similar excitement toward her daughter Sorel and David's guest, Jackie.
Although the second and third acts (done without intermission) move at a faster and more enjoyable pace, they contain much that seems dated and stilted. Had the Bliss family chosen to play charades, that choice wouldn't have seemed as boring as their game of Adverbs, in which a player acted out words such as saucily and winsomely while the others guessed the word. Most people today would probably run for cover if coerced to play this game.
To be fair, this is not an easy play to do well. The acting challenge it poses was recently acknowledged by veteran actor Ian McKellen, who in a 40-year career finds his television performance as Simon in Hay Fever one of only two performances he regrets giving.
Even Coward said in a magazine article that said Hay Fever might be his best comedy but most difficult to perform. "
Hay Fever continues on weekends through Nov. 17. Information or tickets: Colonial Players box office, 410-268-7373.