2nd Story’s “Hay Fever” Is An Overdone Shouting Contest

Jul 24, 2014

Members of an eccentric family each invite a friend to the family summer home where the hosts proceed to foist each guest off on a different family member, with alarming and delightful results.
Credit Richard W. Dionne, Jr. / 2nd Story Theatre

Ah, yes, “Hay Fever” one of those plays that became known as “a comedy of manners.” But in truth Coward's 1925 hit really ought to be called a “comedy of ill manners.”

It's Coward's view of a famous family being famously, uproariously, ridiculously bad mannered to point of forcing the family's so-called “guests” to split, to sneak out of the house, to take any measures to get away from the family's self-regard, their “I really don't give a hoot for anything or anyone but myself” attitude.

Coward came up with the “Hay Fever” idea after being the upstate New York house guest of one of the great Broadway actresses of her day, Laurette Taylor, and her husband.

Still in his mid-20s Coward immediately knew that he had a comedy on his hands and, amazingly, completed “Hay Fever” in just three days. The result was a work looking in on one retired – but never quitting – actress he named ironically Judith Bliss. Along with her fatuously pompous husband and her nervy, more or less grown children, the “Bliss-less family invited four poor souls for a long, very long, weekend.  They are subjected to direct assaults, indirect put-downs and overall a kind of goofy un-caring hospitality that makes them all ready to beg a ride back to the city.

Coward himself once slyly joked that “Hay Fever”  “has no plot at all and remarkably little action.” He added that any version of “Hay Fever” depends on the “expert technique” of the cast.

And, unfortunately, that is just the problem with this production directed by 2nd Story's artistic leader Ed Shea. It is simply an overdone, over speedy, and never quite witty enough work. Emphasizing its partial farcical moments, this “Hay Fever” is not allowed to evolve at its own pace.

The result is a shouting contest, a loud and overdone circus that simply does not do for a comedy of manners. This production is forced. It depends on loudness and over-weaning drive. It rarely approaches the modestly quicksilver incisiveness, which Coward provided. There's almost none of the incisive cut and thrust – and then smile -- of the original.

As Judith Bliss Joanne Fayan has her moments but is generally a caricature of a character. John Michael Richardson as her husband and Nicholas Thibeault as a suffering guest are both closer to the needed technique.

Among good things are Karl Pelletier's wonderful set, plush pillows, over-done curtains, stuffed fish etc. are a joy. And, at the end, Shea has his beaten up guests sneak out carrying luggage and with thank-the-lord-were-saved smiles. It's a moment that truly catches what's necessary. If only there had been more of its cleverness in the rest of this “Hay Fever.”