Hay Fever at the Guthrie Theater

March 16, 2012
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Matt Sullivan and Harriet Harris in Hay Fever. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Hay Fever (at the Guthrie, through April 22) belongs to the designers.  Enter the Wurtele Thrust and behold – “Wow.” – Janet Bird‘s sumptuous, perfectly painted, gorgeously lit (by Philip S. Rosenberg) set.  Paintings compete with rough drawings and eccentric props.  Murals swirl – enough to draw your attention but never distracting.  The floorplan is a wonder; there are a half dozen outstanding theatrical entrance/exits.

Ms. Bird has also designed the costumes.  As each character enters you will marvel at how perfectly everything fits together.  The set and costumes reveal more about the batty Blisses than Noel Coward, author of the entertaining though often frustrating play, could ever show you.  Kudos to director Christopher Luscombe for keeping everything, the exquisite design and the acting, focused and precise.

The Guthrie has, arguably, the finest production department in the country (look at your program; there are at least 100 names).  If you want to see what these artists can do with a large budget and a beautifully designed playing space, check out Hay Fever.  You won’t be disappointed.

This is a fiendishly difficult play to do.  Each member of the eccentric (and, of course, wealthy) Bliss family has invited a chum for the weekend, without bothering to inform the others.  The four nervous victims, er, visitors arrive.  They drink tea.  After dinner, they play a hilariously nasty parlor game.  The next day, they sneak away as (in an oft-employed Coward technique) the Blisses argue vociferously.

And that’s more or less it.  Hay Fever, written in 1925, lacks the plot-rich screwiness that makes the American You Can’t Take It With You such a delight.  This action-less, joke-free play is all about manners.  The Blisses have a louche instinct for correct behavior while their visitors, provocations notwithstanding, do not.  This is the source of much of the play’s comedy.  “I give you to him,” Judith Bliss intones (twice).  We know she’s play-acting, but the guests do not.  Ha ha.

Hay Fever requires exquisite performances, and the Guthrie cast does reasonably well.  Harriet Harris doesn’t do the usual arch Coward posing; she plays Judith with surprising and refreshingly nasty zest.  This took some getting-used-to, but it makes her unpredictable and great fun to watch.  Simon Jones captures David Bliss perfectly, dotty and self-absorbed.  The younger Blisses, played by  Cat Walleck and John Skelley, haven’t achieved the full-blown weirdness of their parents, but they’re well on their way and we cheer them on.

The visitors are more vivid and I believe this results from Coward’s writing; these brittle characters grab our attention more forcefully.  Charity Jones is a hoot as the oiled and coiffed Myra.  John Catron, he of the goofy grin, is great fun as Sandy (though his British accent could use attention).  Heidi Bakke and Matt Sullivan deliver the two best performances in the play, as out-of-her-element Jackie and as the squeakily proper Richard.  Sullivan made me laugh constantly.

And, of course, the great Barbara Bryne plays the servant Clara.

In the mood for a comedy about English manners?  Do you enjoy knock-’em-dead design?  If the answer to either question is yes, Hay Fever is the play for you.

For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.

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