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O.C. THEATER REVIEW : A Giddy Revival of 'Hay Fever' at SCR : This 1925 cream puff must be taken for what it is--pure fantasy. But it's a great fun fantasy.

April 12, 1993|SYLVIE DRAKE | TIMES THEATER CRITIC EMERITUS

Noel Coward--Sir Noel--had a song for nearly every situation and if not a song then a play.

His work, spoken or sung, reflected the elitist, mildly decadent times of his youth. This is certainly true of "Hay Fever," a cream puff he concocted in 1925, when the flapper world was at its giddiest and the brittle upper reaches of the affluent British middle-class were for him a grand source of comedy.

That the world stood poised between two wars mattered not a whit. The first was supposed to have ended all wars, and no one suspected that the second was on its way.

It is in this spirit of madcap insouciance and mild ennui --not unlike Coward's 1930 "Private Lives"--that one must take "Hay Fever's" pranks: As pure fantasy, with the bohemian eccentricities of the Bliss family for excuse.

The Blisses are no ordinary group of Cookham country squires. Father David (James Cromwell) is a novelist who mostly keeps to his room and writes, which is one way of shutting out the rest of his noisy household. Mother Judith (Kandis Chappell) is an actress to the grand manner born; she has retired from the stage but hasn't stopped acting for a moment since.

They have two grown, bright and remarkably immature children--a daughter, Sorel (Melanie van Betten), who is mostly a perky, pretty young thing, and a son Simon (Benjamin Livingston), who mostly likes to draw.

The events of "Hay Fever" concern a busy weekend when all four members of this uncoordinated family have each invited a personal overnight guest. Each has somehow also failed to mention this to the others, let alone bothered to notify the maid.

(That maid, Clara, is played over the top by an almost unrecognizable Karen Hensel. She has a ball throwing her weight around as a slovenly, cap-askew, stone-walling, three-pack-a-day straight shooter, cousin of that other Coward cartoon: "Private Lives' " nosy maid, Louise.)

Everyone ends up connecting with somebody else and the four traumatized guests flee in unified horror early Sunday. The comedy is entirely frivolous, gleefully fake and confined to amusing or extravagant characters and drop-dead one-liners delivered by a company that, under William Ludel's crisp direction, seems to enjoy itself.

Ludel, who staged the wildly successful revival of "The Man Who Came to Dinner" at South Coast last fall, is only slightly less at ease in the British countryside than he was in an American small town. For all of its brisk gaiety and fun--to say nothing of its spectacular setting--"Hay Fever" seems a touch forced, its innocence self-conscious and calculated.

A case could be made for that. This is , after all, a flamboyant family given to excessive and calculated behavior. And the guests who show up, only to be bewildered by their unconventional hosts, are themselves etched in fairly eccentric colors.

Simon's guest, Myra (Marnie Mosiman), is a not-so-young woman with designs of her own in mind. Judith's friend, Sandy (David Whalen, a model of earnestness), is a good-natured boxer with the brains of an ox. Sorel's "diplomatist," Richard (Timothy Landfield), is a man tied up in the knots of strict convention, at once dazzled and dumbfounded by the amazing behavior around him.

Only David's guest, Jackie (Jane Macfie), appears totally lost, partly because Coward neglected to offer much of a reason for her to have been invited in the first place, and partly because she's one of those persons who simply never fits in.

This doesn't deter Macfie from giving a wonderfully befuddled performance, with more definition, oddly enough, than Mosiman's hip Myra or Livingston's nebbishy Simon. We don't know what Sorel's much about, either, except that Van Betten plays her as a spoiled yet innately smart woman.

Cromwell's David is the production's anchor, a sobersided pater familias who has more or less given up on his wife and rude brood. But it is Chappell as Judith who gets to chew scenery, shamelessly playing the stereotypical Great Actress in every mood and hue. This, however, is not second nature to Chappell and some of the effort shows.

In the end it is Landfield who delivers the most subtle performance as the confounded Richard--an astounded mass of tortured responses that, in contrast to the insanity swirling around him, are hilariously slow on the draw.

Costumer Ann Bruice has outdone herself, providing an exceptionally lavish array of '20s beaded gowns and headdresses and filmy chiffon prints, while Cliff Faulkner's bewitching semi-abstract set, gorgeously lit by Peter Maradudin, creates the rest of the magic.

His backdrop consists of a series of gilt-framed paintings of English sky, while his spacious country house overflows with Oriental carpets and spring flowers.

This "Hay Fever" takes its title not from the allergy, but from the spring madness and the country setting. So don't be a drag. Take two antihistamines and go.

* "Hay Fever," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends May 16. $25-$34; (714) 957-4033. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes. Melanie van Betten: Sorel Bliss Benjamin Livingston: Simon Bliss Karen Hensel: Clara Kandis Chappell: Judith Bliss James Cromwell: David Bliss David Whalen: Sandy Tyrell Marnie Mosiman: Myra Arundel Timothy Landfield: Richard Greatham Jane Macfie: Jackie Coryton

Director William Ludel. Playwright Noel Coward. Sets Cliff Faulkner. Lights Peter Maradudin. Costumes Ann Bruice. Dialect coach Dudley Knight. Production manager Edward Lapine. Stage manager Julie Haber. Assistant stage manager Scott Harrison.

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