Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


The Hilberry season begins with Hay Fever, playwright Noël Coward's over-the-top story of an eccentric family whose only delight bigger than deriding each other seems to be deriding each other's friends and acquaintances. Director David J. Magidson presents most of this production at face value, focusing on character and relationship rather than fine-tuning comic bits; the result is a well-crafted comedy that swells with potential to really let the laughs fly.

The entire play takes place in the country home of the Bliss family: novelist and father David (Alan Ball), retired stage diva and mother Judith (Samantha Rosentrater), lackadaisical fop Simon (Andrew Papa), and snitty princess Sorel (Sarah Hymes). The children are awful because their parents are awful — the entire family thinks itself somehow evolved beyond the kind of horrible politeness other people put themselves through. And yet each of the four has quietly invited someone to the house for the weekend; unsurprisingly, they soon lose interest in their respective guests and then tire of the prospect of hosting altogether. It's proof positive that a comedy of manners can still bring the former in the total absence of the latter.

As much of the humor comes from the fact of the family's cool aloofness as from the reactions of the pitiful guests, whose varying expectations of a weekend at the Blisses' are all universally shattered (and then stomped on for good measure). David's meekly terrified guest (Carollette Phillips) isn't even sure if he recalls inviting her, whereas vampy Myra (Loreli Sturm) has secretly come not for Simon, but to throw herself at her favorite writer, his father. As gentlemen callers Sandy and Richard, Peter Prouty and Christopher Ellis turn on their bullish simplicity and impersonal professionalism, respectively. Each has a few moments to shine, but much of the secondary characters' work falls within the narrow spectrum between confused and put out.

With a coy first act of careful exposition and a hurried third act that does little more than tie a big bow around the whole premise, the second act is the best-crafted and by far the most fun. After a disastrous and petty attempt to play a parlor game that only the Blisses know, people are caught in compromising positions left and right, giving Judith the opening she needs for further gameplay in the form of unmitigated histrionics. Rosentrater holds court with her vain and self-adoring hack/artiste, and her fellow performers (especially Ball, Hymes, and Papa) lend her all the space and fodder she needs to take her performance into the stratosphere. The result is a fast-moving climax that feeds on repetition and callback to finally bring the laughs to a hearty roll.

The suggestion of the country gardens and river just beyond the walls is made by Impressionist-like canvases in Rudolph C. Schuepbach's airy design, warmly lit by Jason Pratt. John D. Woodland's costumes are a fine blend of buttoned-up tweeds and delicately shapeless flapper wear. Sound design by Jon Weaver makes clever use of simplicity and repetition, provided the viewer really enjoys "Heart and Soul." Scene changes are executed in character by Vanessa Sawson as Clara, the terrifying, supremely ungraceful maid whose galumphing presence in the play itself is more a minor inconvenience than a celebrated annoyance.

In all, this relatively gentle staging is cautious in its grabs for laughs, with indifference rather than mischief ruling the main characters' motivations. The universally solid comic performances stick pretty close to baseline human behavior, but those calamitous glimpses into the Blisses' heightened, histrionic play world left this viewer craving more of the ridiculous.


Post a Comment