REVIEW: Bad hosts trigger big laughs at Ghent Playhouse ‘Hay Fever’

“Hay Fever”/Noel Coward/Ghent Playhouse

DIRECTOR KATE GULLIVER and her “Hay Fever” crew are sending their audiences out of the Ghent Playhouse a good ten pounds lighter than when they came in. Maybe laughter is an instant calorie-burner, or maybe this particular laughter simply flushes out the daily grime from reality-burdened minds.

The catharsis is rather surprising in view of the fact that one has just spent an evening with some of the most quarrelsome, self-absorbed, easy-coupling, manipulative individuals that one could ever hope to avoid.

They are the Bliss family, Judith, a middle-aged-but-still-glamorous stage actress (Meg Dooley), David, her novelist husband (David Edward Campbell), and their two grown children, Sorel (Caitlyn Mazzacano) and Simon (Michael  Meier).

You probably know the plot of this old war-horse, a play that should creak–but doesn’t. It’s about a weekend in a country house north of London. Each family member has invited a house guest without having consulted the others, resulting in a generally uncongenial group and leaving one guest sweltering all night in the boiler room.

Drawing-room comedy drifts in and out of fashion over the decades, but Coward’s sparkles on. “Hay Fever” mines that certain gay world-view that is engagingly offered by Coward, Oscar Wilde, E.F. Benson and others. These writers are devoted to wealth, glamour, and outrageousness, all the while they are mercilessly unveiling their characters’ shallowness and narcissism.

In this case, the drawing room looks rather tacky and crowded, and it is difficult to believe that Judith Bliss would have put up with it. Joan Maurer’s costumes, however, almost redeem the look of the show. Dooley’s first entrance is a blast of sunshine, all pale yellow softness topped with a large, flowered garden hat. Later she floats around in rosy beige lace; and even later, she appears in a show-biz-y Japanese kimono with red bows, all of which says reams about her character. Maurer dresses Cathy Lee-Visscher (as Myra, the most urbane and self-confident of the house guests) in Renoir pastels, a sensuous ivory cape, and a sparkling dress that looks like frost on a window pane.

The Blisses live life as if all the world’s their private stage; and if, at the moment, drama is lacking, they will create some. Casual kisses become grounds for pretend-engagement, pretend-divorce, pretend-tantrums. In this house, it is Bliss to say what one doesn’t mean, and torture-the-guest amusements are proof of Bliss superiority. The family is an exclusive little club.

Coward’s men are totally flummoxed by “Hay Fever’s” large-writ women. David, who attempts a dalliance with Myra, is thwarted, and he is reduced to confessing that his novels are actually rather trashy. (He’s convincingly performed by Campbell.) House-guest Sandy (Neal Berntson) remains in a state of confusion under the thumbs of both generations of Bliss women. Mother-slave Simon grows into someone more compelling as the play progresses. (The very tall, attractive Mike Meier mostly makes it work, though sometimes he seems to be waiting for the director to undo his hands, which are too often clasped tensely in front of him.) Of all the men, only house-guest Richard, wonderfully played by Richard Lapo, seems in full, if repressed, possession of his faculties. Lapo grasps the Coward manner, and he delivers this character in a little gem of a performance.

And then there are the women: Even the worldly Myra, played with typical Lee-Visscher gusto and honesty, is undone by Bliss-family drama. (Darn! An annoying hunk of hair frequently keeps the audience from the good stuff that always occupies Lee-Visscher’s face.) The Blisses roll over the hapless Jackie without even glancing back. Stephanie Tanaka as Jackie does not quite have a firm grasp of this role. Daughter Sorel attempts to emulate mom’s powerful manner, but this viewer longed to whisper in Mazzacano’s ear: “Do less. Do less.”

In the end, “Hay Fever” is a star vehicle; Judith dazzles. She stars in her own life, and the actress playing her had better dazzle as well. In Act I it’s possible to wish for a little less cheating front from Dooley; but as the play progresses, her performance turns more and more toward free-ranging, organic, character-driven, tasty comedy!  If you’re old enough, some of it may remind you of that rare, pretty red-headed comedienne, Lucille Ball.

Yup. You can put it on the marquee, “Dooley dazzles!” It’s her show, and she does it up large.

“Hay Fever” runs through  Sunday, October 31. Seats may be reserved at (518) 392-6264. 

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