Laughing at silly, obnoxious rich people will never get old.
Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever” is one of the more famous “comedy of manners” in the canon, and nearly 100 years after its premiere, it still rings true. And while the topic of greed may feel super relevant these days, informing every joke, internet meme and editorial cartoon, it is perhaps humbling to remember that we’ve been here before.
A new production of Coward’s play opened at the Irish Classical Theatre on Friday night—just in time for a light, summer laugh—and runs through June 25. It does an honorable job with the material, and delivers an entertaining night at the theater, there’s no question about that. But looking closer at the cast’s performances, the responsibility of which partly belongs to director Gordon McCall, and some glaring missteps become apparent.
The plot is quite simple, which in this genre means the jokes can be lengthy, laborious even: The four members of the well-to-do Bliss family, led by an eccentric retired-actress mother and philandering novelist father, and their two whiney, privileged adult-children, each invite guests to their country estate for the weekend. Once they arrive, the family unleashes a series of intolerable displays—asinine parlor games, unending melodrama, clutched pearls, the whole bit. Blinded by their own social disgraces, the family does not even notice their frazzled guests tip-toeing out the back door, luggage in hand. (This visual gag, which surely you will recognize, had its debut in this play’s original staging.)
All of this is to say, it’s a lot of hijinks, plenty of antics, and a heavy-handed dose of social commentary. Though with three acts and two intermissions, all of it hardly seems necessary. These kinds of plays, and Coward’s in particular, have always reminded me of a New Yorker cartoon, with its acerbic wit and dangling punchline. Where Coward’s 1924 script is today, frankly, a bit of a bore, it therefore relies heavily on its cast to keep every line fresh and punchy.
Some of McCall’s cast delivers on this burden with screaming pleasure. Marisa Caruso and Jordan Levin are utter delights as the Bliss children, Sorel and Simon. Their performances are detailed and vibrant, putting a fun sheen on their characters’ most annoying flaws. David Oliver plays their devilishly fun father, guilty of his own misdeeds. It would be easy to picture him in a smoking jacket the whole time.
Josephine Hogan plays the family’s absent-minded, disillusioned (read: endlessly fun) mother. Hogan doesn’t step fully into character until the madcap second act, which turns up the volume on every crazed personality in the household. She is rightfully loopy and certainly dramatic in those scenes, but her act-one performance leaves much to be desired; it falls flat when, we eventually discover, there’s a lot more going on in this woman’s head. I felt that Hogan could have taken it so much farther, and in doing so, lifted the family’s zaniness to a whole new level. Their noxious personalities don’t come through nearly enough.
The guests, played by Jacob Albarella, Melissa Levin, David Lundy and Hilary Walker, are a tight foursome in the third act, which opens with the funniest breakfast scene I’ve ever seen. Lundy and Walker are especially juicy in their roles; Lundy gives new definition to “deer in headlights” and Walker shows incredible control of an affected personality. Andrea Gollhardt plays the disgruntled maid, who, sure to form, is the voice is reason and ultimate hero.
Another character here is Paul Bostaph’s wildly playful set, inspired by a MacKenzie-Childs catalog and a trip through Alice’s looking glass. McCall’s rotation of furniture in the second and third acts is inspired and smart, but Bostaph’s aesthetic is much too much for my taste, though the intention is appreciated; these are grown children, manipulating the adult world as though playing a game of chess.
Luckily for us, the joke is still on them.
“Hay Fever” by Noel Coward
Irish Classical Theatre, 625 Main St., Buffalo
Runs through June 25, Thurs. - Sat. at 7:30 p.m., Sat. at 3 p.m., Sun. at 2 p.m.
Tickets available at the Irish Classical box office, by phone or online. Tickets: $45