A racing pace and broad acting don't always serve Noël Coward's urbane comedy
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., May 29, 2009
City Theatre, through June 7
Running time: 2 hr, 10 min
If you've hung around theatres for any length of time, you've heard of Noël Coward. A multitalented Englishman known as a playwright and songwriter of style and wit, Coward is most often
associated today with three plays he wrote between 1925 and 1941. Two of them, Private Lives and Blithe Spirit, are quite probably among the most performed plays in the English language. The third, Hay Fever, is presently being produced by the North by Northwest Theatre Company.
At the risk of giving too much away, there's a scene in the play set around a breakfast table. A family – twentysomething son and daughter, actress mother, novelist father – consumes toast and marmalade, bacon, and potatoes while Dad reads the final chapter from his latest barn-burning novel. An argument erupts over the name of a certain street in Paris. Everyone joins in, the fight escalating by leaps and bounds until the family members notice something odd, at which point they forget why they're arguing and continue eating and reading. With its spotless china and shining serving dishes, real food, and wonderful build and climax, the actors trusting Coward's words and one another, the scene is about as perfect a piece of live storytelling as you could find anywhere.
It also is the exception to the rule. For most of the evening, rather than allowing the story to work, as they do in the breakfast scene, the actors do their utmost to work the story. They seem to be under the impression that Coward needs a lot of comedic goosing – broad characterization, mugging, and the like – but he doesn't. Coward's comedy is a comedy of manners and wit, of situation and thought. Hay Fever is a good example. Each member of the wealthy Bliss family, without telling any of the others, has invited a guest to their country home for the weekend, and each is more than somewhat put out that so many guests will arrive. Now, anyone with half a brain in their head could tell you that the relationships won't play out as planned, but few would be able to tell you, the family members included, that such is exactly their collective, if perhaps unconscious, intention. The Blisses seem to get blissed out on weekends of personal drama. It amuses them.
But I've already given too much away, so I'll stop there. While the second and third acts are somewhat more modulated, director Karen Sneed seems to have asked her actors to go really, really fast, and they do. With some of the characters, particularly the actress and the maid, Sneed seems to have asked them to be really, really broad as well. In one performance, "really, really loud" seems to have been the catchphrase. So what you get, for the majority of the evening, is a comedy that's occasionally really, really loud; often really, really broad; and almost always really, really fast. Which might work well for farce or burlesque or slapstick but doesn't work nearly as well for Coward's urbane comedy of wit.