Hay Fever

Cat Walleck (Sorel Bliss), Harriet Harris (Judith Bliss) and John Catron (Sandy Tyrell) in "Hay Fever." Photo by Michael Brosilow.

In 1925, when Noël Coward wrote Hay Fever, going to the theater could be thought of as the pre-TV equivalent of staying in and watching Netflix. And just like a good night of TV, the theater has the potential to offer something for everyone – suspenseful drama, for those who want to think, or easy comedy, for those who don’t. Hay Fever falls squarely into the latter category. A comedy about a dysfunctional family and the guests who are unlucky enough to be invited over for the weekend, Hay Fever might be the 1920’s equivalent of Married… With Children – easy to watch, uncontroversial, and devoid of intellectual content.

To its credit, the Guthrie Theater‘s fine acting, direction, and design make Hay Fever highly enjoyable to watch. As the various members of the Bliss family, Harriet HarrisCat Walleck, John Skelley, and Simon Jones are ridiculous and over-the-top while being completely believable. Their unfortunate guests – none of whom know what they are getting themselves into – are all effective as the “straight men” (and women) next to their eccentric counterparts. And Barbara Bryne, as Clara the maid, has created a hilariously quirky character from relatively little stage time.

The set design by Janet Bird also nails the Bliss family’s eccentricity and lack of boundaries. A colorful mess of paintings and mismatched prints, the family’s large living room gives us exactly the sense of a well-to-do family who gives its artistic side just a bit too much license. The costumes, too (also by Bird), are perfectly suited to each character’s particular style and taste.

It is a credit to Christopher Luscombe‘s direction that he has maintained Hay Fever‘s focus in both the design and the acting. Each character is distinctly imagined and has its own mannerisms; in the case of Simon and Sorel Bliss, their personalities really do seem to have sprung naturally from their parents’ self-centered dramatics without replicating them exactly.

All of these elements, as well-executed as they are, make Hay Fever a thoroughly entertaining and relaxing way to spend an evening. But when the playwright himself once commented that the original production was received with “amiable… although far from effusive” notices and that “it was noted, as indeed it has been today, that the play had no plot and that there were few if any ‘witty’ lines,” one wonders why the Guthrie would have chosen to produce this particular play over one of Coward’s many others — or indeed why a sitcom of the ’20s would be revived nearly 90 years later. And more to the point, is Hay Fever a compelling and challenging enough choice for a fancy night out when (unlike theatergoers of 1925) we have the technology to stay at home and watch re-runs of our favorite TV shows for free?

Hay Fever by Noël Coward. March 16-April 22, 2012, at the Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis, MN 55415. Tickets $29 – $68 at 612.377.2224 or online at www.guthrietheater.org.

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