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THEATER REVIEW

A family's playtime

The Old Globe is game for the shenanigans of Noel Coward's 'Hay Fever,' but the result feels a bit mannered.

July 25, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- Noel Coward, an Englishman with a queer bent and an unglamorous middle-class pedigree, had the last laugh on his aristocratic betters by teaching them the fine points of sophisticated style and wit.

No surprise that he also took great delight in tweaking the nose of revered tradition. In "Hay Fever," his early farce now playing at the Old Globe, he pokes fun at the beloved British genre known as "the comedy of manners" by inviting us into the country home of a family sorely lacking anything resembling social graces.

The joke here is that Judith (Judith Lightfoot Clarke) and David Bliss (John Windsor-Cunningham) and their two grown children, Simon (Santino Fontana) and Sorel (Sarah Grace Wilson), live in a realm beyond conventional respectability. They're artists -- or, in the case of the kids, artistically inclined. Poetry and drawing mean more than fresh linen and a full larder, so don't expect good housekeeping, even if Andrew Jackness' set tidies up what should be an extremely messy if nonetheless grand living room.

Judith retired from acting last year, though she can't stop putting on a show. To her, all the world is indeed a stage, and she needs only an audience of one to coax her to brandish her formidable melodramatic arsenal.

When it turns out that each of the four family members has invited a guest for what was supposed to be a quiet rusticating family weekend, Judith treats the occasion as an opportunity to rehearse a domestic version of "Love's Whirlwind," the play she's considering reviving for her comeback vehicle. Unbeknownst to her visitors, she incorporates them into her sparkling drama, improvising the action and dialogue with help from her novelist husband and children, who have clearly inherited her self-dramatizing ways and love of mischievous games.

Coward was aware that many considered "Hay Fever" his best comedy but cautioned that it is "far and away one of the most difficult plays to perform." Built around a situation rather than an escalating plot, it depends to an unusual degree "upon expert technique from each and every member of the cast" to make it work.

The production, directed by Robert Longbottom, draws a fair amount of breezy enjoyment out of this larkish, sun-dappled work. But as often happens with American revivals of Coward, the manner adopted seems unnecessarily stilted and contrived.

The image that comes to mind is that of a young girl dressing up in her mother's fancy evening wear. It's the sort of impersonation that wants to tickle more than persuade, and Longbottom's cast belly-whops into the silliness.

The result, while mildly amusing, is emotionally void. One might not think of Coward as having feelings, but of course he did, and "Hay Fever," written when he was in his mid-20s and still unheralded as a playwright, was inspired by the antics he watched with great fascination in the home of legendary actress Laurette Taylor. In short, what might seem at first glance to be a concocted fiction is in part reality-based, and the cynical unveiling of a family-wide narcissism has a delightful tender side.

Taking things to histrionic extremes, Clarke makes a rather arch impression as Judith. But then how could she not, given the absurd costumes she's forced to sink herself into? It's one thing to be royally decked out in the country; it's quite another to be overdressed for the Elizabethan court. The tea gown, garden hat and brocaded ensembles wear the actress rather than the other way around -- an apt metaphor for the way the cast is directed to "play" Coward's style instead of embodying it.

Among the Blisses, Wilson, a lovely, lucid actress you'll no doubt be hearing more about, lends spoiled, whiny Sorel much fresh-faced appeal. But by and large, the more adroit performances are turned in by the supporting actors.

The female visitors -- Yvonne Woods as snootily aghast Myra and Bridget Moloney as ditsy, sexpot Jackie -- are more credible than their parts always deserve. As for the male guests, the lack of ostentatious theatrics in Brian M. Slaten's Sandy and Alan Campbell's Richard is very much appreciated. And in the most stereotypical of roles, Mikel Sarah Lambert as the overburdened housekeeper, Clara, keeps the shtick just shy of being stagy.

Coward recognized that we are all actors at heart, pantomiming our public selves before each other for maximum effect. But broad as his comedy can be, it draws a distinction too little observed in the performance of his work between behavior that's over-the-top and behavior that's merely far-fetched.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'Hay Fever'

Where: Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Aug. 19

Price: $19 to $62

Contact: (619) 234-5623; www.oldglobe.org

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