All elbows and high drama: Monique Fowler as Judith Bliss.
All elbows and high drama: Monique Fowler as Judith Bliss.
Bruce Bennett

Something Old, Something New

Produced as a 100th birthday salute to one of the 20th century's most significant British playwrights, Noel Coward's Hay Fever, as directed by Stephen Rayne, is an absolutely fetching show, dripping gorgeous opulence across the Alley's main stage.

The now famous Bliss family consists of four arty eccentrics who break all the rules of 1920s decorum: They flow through their lazy lives, full of beautifully silky clothes, fresh cut flowers, fine china and trips abroad, without so much as a nod to social customs and norms. Visitors are left to languish alone in the living room as the family obliviously goes about its business. Monique Fowler's matriarchal Judith Bliss is a grand dame, a semiretired actress who spends her days "rusticating" rather unsuccessfully in the country home garden. All elbows and high drama, she keeps the family simmering. Paul Vincent's David Bliss is the quintessential magnanimous, condescending author who pens his novels while hidden in a room upstairs. Their spoiled, grown children -- Michelle Federer's sassy, lanky Sorel and Crispin Freeman's soft-eyed and useless Simon -- don't do much of anything except languish on the couch, doodle on a sketch pad and squabble like brats.

Four rather ordinary guests wander into this decadent setting, each invited for the weekend by a different family member. Pity Jackie Coryton (Luci Christian), the poor, prone-to-tears, working-class flapper whom father brings home to study for his latest novel. The other guests are just as clueless: The stiff businessman Richard Greatham (Paul Hope), who has been invited by Sorel; the cool, creamy and oh-so-sophisticated Myra Arundel (Carol Linnea Johnson), here as Simon's paramour; and finally Sandy Tyrell (Sean Dougherty), the boxer who arrives not knowing that Judith, who invited him, is happily married.


Hay Fever

runs through March 25 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue,

(713)228-8421. $32-$49.

These eight oddballs flail about the weekend playing word games and mind games with each other until nobody can stand it another minute. Clearly driven by the characters who inhabit it, this piece about long-gone gossamer days mostly owes its longevity to the actors who bring these screwballs to life. For this world is so unreal, so rarified and so archaic that it might seem irritatingly silly now. Thankfully Rayne's cast is utterly charming and his direction astute. This show about people who don't really have any problems whatsoever, save their insufferable rudeness, remains astonishingly engaging.


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