"HAY FEVER," Noel Coward's 1925 capricious comedy of strained manners, arrives from Broadway like a giddy breath of spring in a captivating, entirely entertaining revival at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.
Without informing the others, each member of the playfully perverse, slightly bohemian Bliss family has invited a guest to their country home for the weekend, resulting in a disastrous mismatch of personal chemistries.
Marshaled by mercurial matriarch Judith, a vain and glorious retired actress, the Blisses serenely go about being genteelly rude to their company, bickering, posing and in general being "artificial to the point of lunacy," as one of the harried visitors puts it.
When attempts at party games disintegrate into chaos, Judith amuses herself by engineering intrigues and flirtations. She directs the remainder of the evening as a grand performance, a reconstruction of her hit melodrama "Love's Whirlwind," casting her conspiratorial family in supporting roles. After a shaky morning-after breakfast, the weekend guests, traumatized by the unnerving hospitality of their hosts, make a hurried escape.
Though it is one of his minor works, Coward's typically literate farce is peppered with some of his bitchiest bon mots, and he cunningly spoofs the empty art of social conversation in a series of verbal pas de deux. Director Brian Murray deftly handles the witty wordplay as well as the more difficult, near-silent scenes of conversational desperation.
With her every movement redolent of "the brittle glamor of the theater," Rosemary Harris is a hilariously hammy Judith Bliss, wafting through the house, trailing scarves and sighs. The other Blisses, played by Roy Dotrice, Mia Dillon and Thomas Gibson, complement Harris with an enjoyable lack of restraint, and Barbara Bryne is dauntingly funny as Clara, the much put-upon maid.
The houseguests are a daft lot as well: Carolyn Seymour makes an arch and angular Myra Arundel; Campbell Scott supplies jaunty boxer Sandy Tyrell with a silly, springy walk; Charles Kimbrough, as starchy Richard Greatham, has a riotous time trying to avoid swallowing a nasty bit of breakfast haddock; and Deborah Rush amuses as emptyheaded flapper Jackie Coryton.
This touring production has a first-rate look. Michael H. Yeargan's charming set is quaintly cluttered with British bric-a-brac, and colorfully lit by Arden Fingerhut, who recreates the feel of a sunny summer afternoon and the damp air of a rainy morning in the country. HAY FEVER -- At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through May 10.