The Mount Vernon Players have a lot of nerve taking on a Noel Coward play like "Hay Fever," because it requires a certain sensitivity to twisted minds to portray its cuckoo characters properly.

But the modest company operating out of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church brings it off with wit and polish.

Coward's 1925 comedy of manners takes place at the estate of the disturbingly wealthy Bliss family, an aptly named clan that gives a new slant on the old adage that bliss is synonymous with ignorance.

The Blisses' favorite pastime is preying on any guests--some invited, others seeming to wander in--at the family's Cookham, England, manor house as objects of their romantic/lustful desires.

Director Harvey Mackie has a knack for interpreting Coward's humor, as seen earlier this season in a witty production of "Present Laughter." He directed "Hay Fever" at Mount Vernon just four years ago, but mounted it again this year in observance of Coward's 100th birthday (which will be Dec. 16).

For this show, Mackie has assembled a cast that shares his facility for this special brand of comedy. The characters are delightfully unbalanced, but the actors make that seem natural--and almost acceptable. It's the sort of performance where you're almost afraid to laugh out loud for fear other audience members will think you're identifying with those oddball Blisses.

The father, David, played with the right dose of emotional indifference by Joseph P. Moss, is a successful novelist who admits to having a superficial understanding of people, particularly women. The mother, Judith, is a former actress who rarely bothers to draw the line between theatrics and real life. Moire MacDonald Queen is beautifully domineering and perfectly out of touch with reality as the sharp-speaking Judith.

Judith has invited prizefighter Sandy Tyrell (played with proper bemusement by Christopher Dearie) to see if she can have her way with him. When daughter Sorel nabs him instead, Judith simply runs to the next available guest.

Sarah Peters is unbelievably funny as the smart-talking, spoiled and perfectly zany Sorel Bliss. Peters's kaleidoscopic facial expressions alone make the evening a treat.

Timothy Maher is also a hoot as Richard Greatham, the timid and terrified guest on whom Judith sets her sights.

Jessica B. Dearie (real-life wife of Christopher Dearie) is also fun to watch as Myra Arundel, a snobbish gold digger who comes to seduce her favorite novelist, the happily receptive David Bliss.

Cassie Lee, as hapless guest Jackie Coryton, has the most honest observation in a play filled with tantalizingly witty remarks: "I believe they're all mad, you know." And that about sums it up.

The Mount Vernon company runs its shows on a shoestring. The set is adequate, but drab. Costumes, by Dorothy Marvil, are sometimes spectacular--as in the period dresses of daughter Sorel--but occasionally uninspired, as in the garish, out-of-character garb worn by mother Bliss.

But visual effects hardly detract from Noel Coward's timeless jokes and characterizations, especially when they're executed with such clearheaded precision as they are in this "Hay Fever."

"Hay Fever" continues at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday at the Players' Theatre, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Tickets are $6. Call 202-347-9621 for reservations.