Dry as a martini, smooth as a smoking jacket, pointed as the end of a cigarette holder -- Noël Coward's wit has been synonymous with jaded sophistication for almost three-quarters of a century. Personally and professionally, the Master, as the English writer has been called, cut a stylish swath across the entertainment world, beginning with his initial success as a playwright, composer, and lyricist in the Twenties. He moved on to write films and increasingly urbane plays in the Thirties and Forties. When his star began to wane, he reinvented himself as a cabaret singer and enjoyed a dazzling stint in Las Vegas in the Fifties. Coward died in 1973; his plays continue to amuse us in regional theater and in New York and London revivals. Currently a remake of Coward's 1943 comedy Present Laughter holds Broadway in its thrall, starring Frank Langella as Garry Essendine, a self-obsessed actor whom Coward modeled on himself.
Don't organize a jaunt to the northeast to catch the droll situations and barbed repartee that mark Coward's drawing room romps, however. Hollywood Boulevard Theatre has resurrected 1925's Hay Fever, a frivolous comedy of bad manners. (Its facetious humor and persistent couplings and uncouplings anticipate well-honed later works such as Present Laughter, Private Lives, Design for Living, and Blithe Spirit.) Directed with panache by Gail Garrisan, the three acts center around the home life of the eccentric Bliss clan. Matriarch Judith (Lourelene Snedeker), who recently retired from the stage, re-enacts melodramatic moments from her most famous plays to stave off boredom in the unglamorous country; her husband David (Drew Morris) pecks away at best-selling potboiler novels in an upstairs room; adult siblings Simon (Michael McKeever) and Sorel (Amy London) alternately conspire and bicker with each other. Unbeknownst to the others, each person has invited a guest for the weekend. Once everyone arrives, the self-involved Blisses proceed to drive them away by staging a series of histrionic scenes.
Coward took immense pleasure in the rhythms of language; he had a flair for the bon mot (he dubbed the crowds that came to his Las Vegas shows "Nescafe society"; he deemed Peter O'Toole's T. E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia a half-step away from Florence of Arabia), and he loved word games. Act Two of Hay Fever opens with the Blisses trying to explain their favorite game to their guests. "In the manner of the word" requires players to act in the manner of an adverb. One player leaves the room while the rest of the group picks an adverb; the returning player must guess the word based on the group's actions. The game baffles and frustrates everyone outside the family, illustrating both the Blisses' insularity and the ways in which they use language and drama to intimidate and control everyone around them.
In choreographing this and other ensemble scenes, Garrisan displays a solid understanding of Coward's intentions: She leads her cast to the precipice of camp and farce, yet reins them in before they plunge over the edge. Forsaking the naturalistic acting methods common to the contemporary stage, she encourages her performers to indicate and enunciate in a pre-World War Two British style that works hilariously in the service of the play. And she ensured authenticity by engaging dialect coach Matthew Wright to assist the players (all of whom are American) in maintaining proper English accents, which most of them manage to do throughout the evening. The overall result is an impeccably timed and rambunctiously funny rendition of this early Coward work.
Heading an enthusiastic cast, Snedeker preens, lopes, and poses through her role as Judith, creating a portrait of a narcissistic woman with a bottomless need for attention. McKeever appears totally at ease as Judith's acid-tongued son Simon, portraying the young man as variously precocious, conniving, and charming. As his disaffected sister Sorel, London convincingly expresses her longing to live in a normal, nonbohemian household, and is equally believable as she allows herself to be lured back into the family's seductive web. Meanwhile, Morris's understated performance as the smug husband and father David conveys a heartless indifference to other people's feelings.
As the viperlike Myra, Linda Bernhard matches Snedeker's bravura turn beat for beat. Bernhard's slithery entrance in Act One is unforgettable; she sustains total control of her comic faculties during her emotional explosion at the end of Act Two and on to her escape from the house in Act Three. Leila Piedrafita is note perfect as the petulant naif Jackie Coryton; the character's perfectly coordinated and accessorized costumes (black and white flapper dress, scarlet hat with matching pin, bright-red satin shoes) accent the whimsical performance. In fact, all of the costumes, designed by Heather Barnes, are expressive, adding dimension to the characterizations through visual flourishes that communicate who the individuals are: Simon appears collegiate and casual in his tennis whites; Myra is predatory in a leopard skin-pattern dress; a formal business suit underscores Tom Wahl's buttoned-up performance as the diplomat Richard Greatham; a striped boating jacket and bow tie highlight David Bugher's slightly buffoonish depiction of innocent Sandy Tyrell. Michelle von Gary's sumptuous set also merits a mention for contributing to the overall mood of the piece; it features a fireplace, a piano, and a fat-pillowed couch, perfect for swooning on when one feels faint.
Coward began his life in the theater at the age of eleven, pushed onto the stage by an ambitious mother who needed money for the family because her husband had lost his job. The Master's plays are all about people distancing themselves from each other through witticisms and artifice. As if he wanted to be identified with his characters, Coward cultivated an image of himself as a bon vivant who rose at noon, spent the afternoon in his dressing gown, and made the rounds of high society at night. Given his prolific body of work, it is hardly surprising that reality differed from the myth. As writer Miranda Seymour put it in a review of Philip Hoare's 1996 Noël Coward: A Biography, Coward was "driven by the kind of passion for fame that requires boundless determination and energy." The man who wrote plays brimming with seemingly effortless humor was really an extremely disciplined author and theater artist. His works embody a similar contrast: Below the polished surface of his texts lie keen observations about class distinction, social interaction, and the ways in which people ruthlessly use one another for their own ends.
Wisely, Garrisan doesn't attempt to prove that this early drawing room comedy is also a social critique. She and her cast capture the play's spirit and sense of wicked fun, letting the situations speak for themselves. After sampling a taste of Coward in this lively production of Hay Fever, you might just find yourself wanting to head to New York for more.
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Whenever I tell people what I do for a living, they invariably react with some version of this: "You have the greatest job." Indeed, I have to agree. Going to shows and then responding to them in this column over the past two years has been sublime. It is with mixed feelings, therefore, that I have decided to take my leave of New Times to pursue other projects.
All of us at the paper care about the South Florida theater community, and we are determined to find just the right person as my replacement. So consider this announcement an open casting call: If you are knowledgeable about drama, can write about it with passion and conviction, are available to see at least one production each week, and can meet deadlines consistently, send a resume and writing samples (theater reviews if possible but not necessary) to Jim Mullin, editor, New Times, P.O. Box 011591, Miami, FL 33101. Do not delay!
Hay Fever. Written by Noël Coward; directed by Gail Garrisan; with Lourelene Snedeker, Linda Bernhard, Michael McKeever, Amy London, Tom Wahl, Leila Piedrafita, David Bugher, Drew Morris, and Karen Gordon. Through January 19. Call 954-929-5400 or see "Calendar Listings.