"Hay Fever" was written by Noel Coward in 1925 for his friend Marie Tempest to star in, and it has been a summer stock staple almost ever since. One reason is that companies that have only two weeks to prepare a show mistakenly think that light comedy is easier to get together than something more intense; another is that it provides good roles not just for the mature leading lady, but for everyone, including the maid.
The Barter Theater opened its revival this week, demonstrating once again this theater's reluctance to produce anything innovative. The production is competent and dull, rendering faithfully the letter, if not the spirit, of the script.
Coward created a family, the Blisses, who were in their day described as "Bohemian." Mother is an actress of the Grande Dame school, Father is a purple prose novelist, and brother and sister don't do anything but draw and go to dances and say naughty things in polite society. They are supposed to be endearingly wacky, taking the stuff out of stuffed shirts, blithely pursuing their own selfish needs without care for the boring people who might have the nerve to expect them to act like normal people.
Four houseguests arrive and are so grossly insulted by the Bliss high jinks that they slink out well before they are due to leave. "How very rude," says mother Judith Bliss, pausing briefly in the midst of one of her temperamental tirades to note their exit.
As Judith, Cleo Holliday looks lovely and tries very hard to attain the absurd flamboyance of the not-quite-retired actress. Unfortunately, she, like other members of the cast, does not really let herself go, and so there is a tongue-in-cheek sense about the zaniness that prevents it from being truly realized. Mary Shelley labors gallantly to overcome her miscasting as the femme fatale Myra Arundel. None of the women is flattered by the 1920s dresses designed by Sigrid Insull, although Holliday comes off better than the others.
"Hay Fever," by Noel Coward, directed by Dorothy Marie Robinson, set by Lynn Pecktal, costumes by Sigrid Insull, lighting by Al Oster. With Frances Fisher, Brooks Baldwin, Marlene Bryan, Cleo Holliday, William Kiehl, John Rensenhouse, Mary Shelley, John W. Morrow Jr., Mary Donnet. At the Barter through Feb. 13.