Not to Be Sneezed At

Main Street Theater's version of Hay Fever, written by the famously calculating Noel Coward, kept its Saturday-night audience laughing out loud this past weekend. In this play, Coward, famous for his oh-so-droll and erudite take on the world, pokes fun at the theater itself.

The Bliss family -- son Simon (Andrew Ruthven), daughter Sorel (Kelli Cousins), mother Judith (Charlene E. Hudgins) and father David (John Kaiser) -- lives in its own strange little world. It's a world where, as Sorel tells us, nobody ever says what he or she means. Instead, the family plays odd word games; they spontaneously re-enact melodramatic scenes from plays in which Judith starred during her days as an actress; and they argue, happily, over such things as the names of streets and who's sleeping in which room. They live in a sort of "blissful" ignorance of the world outside, content with their own unmannerly yet utterly mannered means of communicating.

But one weekend, the outside world comes calling in the form of four guests, each invited by a member of the Bliss family. Myra (Karen Ross), who's invited by son Simon, only comes because she's enamored with David, a famous writer; flapper Jackie (Brooke Baumer) comes because David wants to "observe" her so he can include a character from her class in his book; Richard (Bryan Bounds), a diplomat, comes because Sorel's so lovely; and finally, Sandy (Niel Prunier) comes because he's such a fan of Judith's. Four men and four women alone in an understaffed country home certainly make an old-fashioned recipe for all sorts of social conundrums, faux pas and sexual silliness. And when the Bliss family starts "acting," as in acting out, the diplomats and the fans and the lower middle class all learn how self-indulgent those arty types can be.

Main Street's production is solid if not brilliant. Claire Hart-Palumbo's direction is sometimes stiff and predictable (when the guests sneak off, they look practically cartoonish as they tiptoe past the arguing Blisses), but it has moments of terrific comic wit. When the guests come down to breakfast, each has his or her own stupefied reaction to whatever strange concoction is warming on the buffet. The cast is strong though not inspired, and Charlene E. Hudgins as Judith Bliss is especially funny. Dressed in a floppy flowered hat and garden galoshes, or in an orange silk kimono, Hudgins gets right to the heart of an aging but vivacious actress who will never be ready to give up the stage, not even when she's pulling weeds in the garden.

-- Lee Williams

Hay Fever plays through July 12 at Main Street Theater at Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose, 524-6706.


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