By the time Noël Coward premiered Hay Fever in London (1925), he was already labeled one of England's “bright young things.” It's a sobriquet Coward himself might have invented. A veteran child actor, musical revue composer and lyricist, cafe society darling and budding playwright, Coward was on a roll. His drama The Vortex, in which he starred as the cocaine-addled son, had caused a scandal with its theme of drug addiction and veiled homosexuality; the comedy Fallen Angels, with its promiscuous married wives proceeding to get drunk while they await a mutual lover, created a notable buzz; everyone in Britain was humming his ditty “Poor Little Rich Girl” from his hit musical On With the Dance; and his marital discord-themed Easy Virtue opened first on Broadway before transferring to London's West End. He had it all. Then came the romp Hay Fever, and the rest, as Coward might say, was only fireworks.
Fever is vintage Coward, albeit the first of such neo-Wildean comedies that would later morph into international stage classics: Private Lives, Design For Living, Present Laughter, Blithe Spirit. It bristles with wit, characters at once alien and all too familiar, biting satire, and that patented Coward soignée charm. It deconstructs the elite class with rapier thrusts and a disregard for socially redeeming qualities. Arching over everything, though, is Coward's masterful structure, as secure as a suspension bridge. He knows how to construct a play. Fizzy as champagne and just as intoxicating, Fever is about nothing.
Fever was written after Coward had spent one dizzying weekend during his first trip to America with the acclaimed actress Laurette Taylor and her family of crazies. Coward knew comic potential when he saw it. Her family of four was ripe for satire. Taylor never forgave Coward for being so perceptive – and so damned irreverent and funny. Years later, after alcohol had blunted her distinguished career, she conquered Broadway with the performance of any lifetime as Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie.
Prolific as anyone in the theater, Coward wrote his comedy of bad manners in three days. It must have been quite an inspired weekend.
The bohemian Bliss family is so self-involved and self-centered, they hardly notice their weekend guests, who've been invited by each one of the family without informing the others. Everyone in the family is in his or her own little world, or perhaps it’s their own little world of four. Everything they do, every gesture, is theatrical and over-the-top and, in the current production at The Texas Repertory Theatre Co., drama is the family business. Matriarch Judith (Sally Burtenshaw) is — what else — an actress. What's worse, she’s a retired one who longs to return to the stage, her true home. Daughter Sorel (Joanna Hubbard) is prickly and omniscient, wanting to be “normal”; son Simon (Ian Hill), a painter manqué, is bitchy and all-knowing; blowhard dad David (Steven Fenley) is a pop novelist working on his latest potboiler. He's so self-aware, he knows he's no good as a writer.
Judith's guest is boxer Sandy (Nathan Wilson), smitten with the older actress; Sorel's guest is diplomat Richard (William Sanders); Simon's is vampy Myra (Lauren Dolk); and David's is groupie flapper Jackie (Haley Hussey). Overseeing the household is the patented Coward sassy and overworked maid, Clara (Marylin Ocker). Needless to say, all change partners within seconds of introduction. And the most wonderful thing about the play is that after the shifting alliances and dramatic antics, all four guests sneak out of the house, and none of the Blisses care in the least. They continue their bickering and way of life as if it's just another day. Which it is to them, all ego till the end. Sublime.
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Playing vintage Coward requires a type of stage acting all its own. It needs polish and high gloss, like Art Deco. It cries for brilliantined hair and the metallic clack of a cocktail cart loaded with martinis. What is played is, naturally, earth-shaking, darling, but it must be played light and breathless, no matter how out of breath one is. It is a forgotten technique, but, after a few minutes of a false start, the cast at Texas Repertory carries on gamely, one might say, with honors.
Catching the spirit with special panache, almost as if wearing silk pajamas, are Fenley, Dolk (glittering in glittery black spangles), Hill (aping Coward on steroids) and Ocker, who all conjure Coward with glee. Sanders has a resonant baritone, tripping lightly through Noël-speak, making me want to hear that inky voice again. The others are fine, if not quite ready for the finer shades of antique comedy, but fortunately Coward comes across with plummy accent in place. Director Rachel Mattox keeps the ice handy at all times, always the pleasant host. Perhaps best of all: the opulent Bliss country house by Trey Otis and Linda Powers with its Erté-inspired topiary, marble staircase and cream piano. Coward would have spent more than a weekend in these plush digs. And who could fault bandleader Ray Noble and crooner Al Bowlly on the soundtrack? Terribly atmospheric, don't you think?
Hay Fever runs through May 29 at The Texas Repertory Theatre Co., 14243 Stuebner Airline. For tickets, visit texreptheatre.org or call 281-583-7573. $38.