Excuse the polleniferous pun, but you really should catch "Hay Fever."
You may have already seen Noel Coward's 1925 comedy of bad manners -- it's long been a favorite of amateur theater groups -- but I doubt you've seen as immaculate a production as the one that blew into the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater Wednesday night for a six-week run. With the diaphanously seductive Rosemary Harris heading a trim and stylish cast, this is the perfect entertainment for the easy spring nights that seem to be upon us.
Slight as "Hay Fever" is, it is not inconsequential. If you reflect for a moment on the events that transpire one June weekend in the country house of the temperamental Bliss family, it may occur to you that Coward's mad frivolity is not without a hint of perversity.
The Blisses, you see, are a blissfully self-absorbed clan, so wrapped up in their artistic enthusiasms and the passions of the moment that reality for them has taken on a fairly delirious shape. Judith, the mother (Harris), may have temporarily retired from the stage, but she's by no means hung up her histrionic urge and will seize any occasion to play a scene -- the grander, of course, the better.
The rest of the family is only too happy to oblige her, when they can wrest themselves from tangents of their own. Husband David (Roy Dotrice), after all, is beavering away on the final chapter of his novel, "The Sinful Woman," and Simon, the son (Thomas Gibson), has taken to producing charcoal sketches by the ream. While Sorel, the daughter (Mia Dillon), rues a certain "slapdash" quality in the Blisses' activities, she is as much a slapper and dasher as the others and treats life as a continuing parlor game.
"Hay Fever" chronicles what happens when each, unbeknown to the other, invites a guest down to the country for the weekend. Being no judge of people, whom they tend to regard as supernumeraries anyway, the gesticulating Blisses end up with a fairly dreary crew on their busy hands: A stuffy diplomat with near-terminal lockjaw (Charles Kimbrough); a predatory vamp (Carolyn Seymour); a young athlete, whose shoulders are as broad as his wit is dim (Campbell Scott); and a cripplingly timid flapper, who thinks "appendicitis" is an adverb (Deborah Rush).
The weekend is calamitous, not that the Blisses notice. Calamity is their natural state. The guests, however, are soon trembling wrecks. It's not enough that they are struggling gamely to maintain decorum while their hosts are shredding proprieties left and right. They are inexorably drawn into unexpected romances, unpredictable arguments and impossibly overwrought scenes. And the haddock served at breakfast is truly disgusting. Coward couldn't be happier making them squirm.
You don't want to make too much of this -- the charm of Coward's comedies stems from his seemingly effortless ability to whip up something out of virtually nothing. But "Hay Fever" really is a celebration of petulance, egoism and impulsiveness. The Blisses have no truck with polite conversation, social convention and the passing courtesies that make the world a more smoothly functioning place. They are rude, bullying anarchists at heart, and we can only be grateful that none of them is interested in politics.
Their moral shortcomings, however, are vastly outweighed by their zest. They may be cavalier with the first Ten Commandments, but they subscribe wholeheartedly to the Eleventh, the greatest of all in Coward's view: Thou Shalt Not Be Dull. Only the hopelessly unimaginative submit to society's injunctions. The blithe spirits, the only ones Coward ever cared for, "rise above" -- and hang the wreckage. Such a credo may not bring down the republic, but it lends a certain revolutionary piquancy to "Hay Fever."
The production, mounted on Broadway earlier this season, has been staged by Brian Murray, who possesses a great feel for the spiraling nonsense but also the knowledge that zany abandon is achieved through meticulous attention to detail. "Hay Fever" is not funny because the Blisses are forever ignoring their company -- which is, after all, a one-joke premise. It's funny because the Blisses have 1,001 fanciful notions competing for attention in their hyperactive minds, while their guests keep hurtling up against the same solitary thought: Whatever are they doing there? It's the discrepancy that produces the merriment.
Consider Harris's irresistible performance, for example. Judith Bliss is infuriatingly vague. Even her children recognize it. But Harris doesn't play the character in a hazy, vacant state (although she clearly favors chiffon for its blurring properties). Much to the contrary, she is acutely aware of every dramatic possibility the weekend presents. It's her curious choice of which option to pursue that makes her appear vague to others. Once she's embarked on a course of action, she's actually deliciously, giddily, imperiously specific.
In that, she is not alone -- merely the most enchanting in her preoccupations. Everyone in this snappy cast is a creature of the moment. (For the guests, the moments just happen to be unendurable.) Dillon, who has a voice somewhere between a sniffle and a grate, is wonderful as the daughter, who for the time being is obliged to play ingenue to her mother's grand dame -- but give her 20 years. As the diplomat, Kimbrough masterfully grinds his jaw, as if it were a cement mixer in which the cement had already begun to congeal.
Rush makes the flapper so Kewpie-doll mindless that when she finally gives way to growls of indignation, it's like stumbling on a steel trap in a pansy patch. Dotrice's novelist comes into his own when he gets to read his finished manuscript to his all too adoring/all too critical family. And Gibson and Scott contribute dashing portraits of sporting young men in the "Tennis, anyone?" mold. Gibson's manner, though, seems to suggest that he would find it immensely amusing to play with his eyes closed, while Scott's indicates that he might have some trouble telling one end of the racket from the other.
Then there's Barbara Bryne, who looks like a burrowing animal, but, as the overworked maid, is constantly tearing about the house like a one-woman fire brigade. She barely has time to appraise the guests who have washed up on the premises. But when she does it's with a squinty, up-close stare that lets us know she is very much her employers' employe. Deference just doesn't occur to her, either.
This is the kind of social intercourse that must plague Miss Manners in her worst nightmares. And I suppose it is deplorable. But if you've ever been tempted to dash a teacup in the hearth or eat all the pa te' yourself or interrupt dinner-table small talk with an amusing tale about the bishop and the actress, you are apt to relish every last faux pas that Coward has packed into this graceful saga of gracelessness.
Hay Fever. By Noel Coward. Directed by Brian Murray. Sets, Michael H. Yeargan; costumes, Jennifer Von Mayrhauser; lighting, Arden Fingerhut. With Rosemary Harris, Roy Dotrice, Barbara Bryne, Mia Dillon, Thomas Gibson, Charles Kimbrough, Deborah Rush, Campbell Scott, Carolyn Seymour. At Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater through May 10.