`Hay Fever' is delightful pandemonium

Theater Review

November 10, 2005|By J. WYNN ROUSUCK | J. WYNN ROUSUCK,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The Bliss family home is anything but blissful in Noel Coward's 1925 comedy Hay Fever.

What begins as a quiet weekend in the country ends up total pandemonium when it turns out that each member of the family has invited a potential paramour.

And, that pandemonium is a pure pleasure in Center Stage's production, directed by Will Frears.

The Blisses are no ordinary family. Matriarch Judith is a grande dame of the British stage whose every word and gesture is theatrical; her weekend guest is a clueless but besotted prizefighter. Patriarch David is a second-rate novelist who writes books with titles like The Sinful Woman; his guest is a flapper he's invited for research. The Blisses' grown children, Simon and Sorel, aren't as colorful as their parents, but they contribute to the chaos by inviting a sexy socialite and a stuffy diplomat, respectively.

Actually, Cheryl Lynn Bowers' tomboyish Sorel is getting a bit tired of her family's Bohemian bad manners. She uses the word "beastly" to describe the family more than once. It's a description that set designer Alexander Dodge has taken to heart, decorating the Blisses' living room walls with an assortment of mounted wild animal heads (not to mention tribal masks and a collection of paintings, mostly hung askew).

The real prey, however, are the unwitting guests who are, by turns, ignored, belittled or treated as romantic pawns by their hosts.

Coward based Hay Fever on visits he made to the home of legendary American actress Laurette Taylor and her playwright husband, J. Hartley Manners. Taylor's most famous Broadway role was that of Amanda Wingfield, the mother in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, so it's an appropriate coincidence that Center Stage has cast Pamela Payton-Wright, who was a magnificent Amanda in its 1997 Menagerie.

Payton-Wright's Judith Bliss is such a self-absorbed diva, she manages to be the centerpiece of any exchange or gathering. At one point, she stands on a chaise longue, as if she were a piece of statuary. At another, after nearly swooning with feigned love for Brad Heberlee's diplomat, she drapes herself around a life-sized figurine of a crane. And just watch Payton-Wright rhapsodize about cypresses in Italy ("such sad, weary trees") with her chin raised and her eyes gazing longingly in the distance.

Yet there's something surprisingly endearing about Payton-Wright's Judith - a hint of self-awareness, combined with the all-out emotions of an enthusiastic child. This prima donna knows she's always performing, and she knows she has to be the center of attention. But not only do you forgive her for this, you're charmed.

As Judith's husband David, Nicholas Hormann is also, as the British would say, "spot on," exuding a mixture of elegance and absent-mindedness at the same time. Indeed, almost the entire cast - from Sara Surrey's haughty socialite to Lisa Altomare's put-upon maid - gets it right. The only slight exception is Heberlee's gawky portrayal of the diplomat, which occasionally crosses the line into cartoonishness.

Style is almost an essential element in a Coward play, and in addition to Dodge's set, Linda Cho's costumes are beauties, especially the stunning black-and-white coat dress - accessorized with a feather boa and a black fur purse - worn by Surrey in the first act. When the lights come up on the second act, with all of the characters in evening dress, the effect is like opening a 1920s jewel case.

In this act, the Blisses and their reluctant guests play a parlor game in which a contestant must guess an adverb chosen by the other players. The correct adverb for the way Center Stage handles Coward's play would be "delightfully."

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

If you go

Hay Fever continues through Dec. 4 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. $10-$60. Call 410-332-0033 or visit centerstage.org

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