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Hot Sauciness

"Oh, shut up, darling," one member of the Bliss family pronounces to another. The inflection is both cultured and frivolous, as are the characters in Noel Coward's charmingly jaunty Hay Fever. Enjoying a modestly successful revival by The Company OnStage, this lighthearted 1925 comedy about the smart set offers cool escapist entertainment from Houston's humid spring evenings. It's agreeable. Rather.

The Blisses -- wife Judith, a grande dame actress; husband David, a sensational novelist; son Simon, a strapping youth; and daughter Sorel, a would-be coquette -- are clever high-society types who speak rippingly and fret fastidiously about bad manners. "Don't be infuriating," "My dear, how ghastly" and "Certainly not" pepper their chic chitchat. One Saturday afternoon they discover that each of them has invited a friend for a weekend visit to their country estate. What with a big house and sprawling gardens, they have plenty of accommodations; what they don't have room for is the unwitting faux pas they've committed -- in a family where reading the society page is a daily practice more important than prayer and a man's not shaving is a criminal offense, one just doesn't clutter the house with multiple guests.

But it's too late to cancel; the Blisses find "difficulties" (translation: making a scene) tiresome. Actually, none of them particularly wants to fob the visitors off anyway, since the Blisses sent the invitations to their admirers. Romantic biddings might be expected from the single and available Sorel and Simon, but they seem a bit bohemian coming from the happily married Judith and David. Act One couples the four pairs for tete-a-tetes, the Blisses initiating intimacies somewhat deeper than relations on a first-name basis. Through comic blunders of the impetuous hosts' doing, Act Two reshuffles the twosomes. In the very tidy Act Three, bliss returns to the household.

The Company OnStage creates a blithe-spirited production of Coward's portrait of the grandly privileged. Like a swank interior decorator, director Kelly Manison, who doubles as set designer (along with Lee Finch), turns the acting space into a tasteful, cream-colored living room with stained wood trim, a curtained upstairs and a gleaming terrace that overlooks a rustic garden backdrop. Amid a plush, carefully chosen love seat and strategically placed servant's bell, there's only one mistake: a secondhand upright piano that's not even black. The Blisses have better taste than that. Playful costume mistress Karla Brandau-Jonte knows this, clothing them and their visitors in colorful "Charleston" dresses and posh evening wear, with looping pearls, flowing scarves and flattering hats at the ready.

Of the principal cast, Martha Culpepper is the most willing and able, her Judith deliciously flouncing away with what she calls "celebrated actress glamour." Affectionately condescending, she reveals that she "tried very hard to be landed gentry but without any success"; resignedly peaceful, she sighs that "it's awfully sad for a woman of my temperament to have a daughter." Elizabeth Seabolt engagingly plays Sorel as a pouty young sophisticate whose inbred confidence and finishing-school education are not necessarily borne out when, eyeing a handsome chap she wants to kiss, she approaches him with, "Never mind about understanding me -- let's go back in the library." Though at first ineffectual and windy, Michael Massey fully inhabits David by evening's end; with his poseur's eyes, his character becomes a polished seducer more interested in playing the game than in winning it. Dan Treadway's Simon is the glaring weak link, lacking the boyish self-assurance to dismiss women, cut them up, need them and demand from them.

Two of the guests are welcome: Elaine Kalantzis' Myra Arundel, who "uses sex as a sort of shrimping net," and Michael Bell's Sandy Tyrell, who wants to say nice things to Judith forever, until he meets eager Sorel. Andrew Trevayne plays a diplomat who avoids saying the wrong thing; although his character is written to be noncommittal, he comes across as merely bland. Shea Feeley is a blank slate as a visitor who doesn't quite know why she's there.

Though at times Manison crowds the upper-crust stage, she mostly guides her leads to command it. Some wear too much makeup and speak in awkward English accents -- but in a play in which affectation is the way of world, I'm sure these gaffes aren't too scandalous.

Hay Fever runs through June 11 at The Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 726-1219.

 
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