Self-absorption and boundless ego rarely appear on any list of likable character traits. Yet a family in boisterous possession of both can’t help but earn our affection at Olney Theatre Center. The company’s production of Noël Coward’s “Hay Fever” is proof that old chestnuts can be served up in their original style, yet seem fresh.
Before Coward’s 1925 farce gets underway, scenic designer John Coyne’s English country house sets a pitch-perfect tone. High-ceilinged and chandeliered, with French doors, Oriental rugs, heavy furniture, throw pillows and weird knickknacks, the place looks dramatically lived in. Mounted animal heads, all generously antlered, seem to propagate up the walls, alongside one very prominent ostrich.
Cue strains of jazzy violin and guitar (sound design by Christopher Baine), and enter the Bliss family, incrementally. First, siblings Simon and Sorel, neatly embodied by Chris Dinolfo and Audrey Bertaux as plummy-voiced exemplars of privileged Roaring Twenties youth. They’ve each invited a weekend guest without informing the household. Their father, David (Matt Sullivan), a grumpy novelist, and their mother, Judith (Valerie Leonard), a retired actress, have, it turns out, done the same. Where will these guests sleep, should they survive the after-dinner parlor games, dramatic outbursts and misunderstood flirtations?
For Leonard’s Judith, regretting her retirement, all the home’s a stage. She does everything with a flourish, whether kicking off her Wellingtons after a tromp in the garden or falling tragically onto a sofa. An actress with rich reserves of high emotions and wicked fun, Leonard seems to be having the time of her life.
She’s in good company. Director Eleanor Holdridge keeps the entire cast, richly clad in costume designer Kendra Rai’s witty confections, spinning in the same stylistic orbit. From their physicality to their upscale transatlantic accents — not so heavy as to be impossible to maintain — they make it look a snap.
Nor do the hapless guests disappoint: A dim young athlete (played by Jon Hudson Odom) flatters Judith’s vanity; a blandly smiling diplomat (played by Michael Russotto) makes young Sorel feel brainy; a calculating socialite (Beth Hylton) dallies with the much younger Simon; and a prissy woman dipped in floral prints (Susan Lynskey ) provides David with lower-middle-class verities for his book.
These ill-gotten guests have fallen into a family plot not of their making, and they will soon recoil in horror. But for us, it’s sheer Bliss.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
Hay Fever by Noël Coward. Directed by Eleanor Holdridge. Lighting design, Nancy Schertler. With Carol Randolph. About two hours. Through Sept. 27 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. $38-$65. 301-924-3400. www.olneytheatre.org.
An earlier version of this review mistakenly transposed some actors’ and characters’ names in parenthetical references. Jon Hudson Odom played athlete Sandy Tyrell, Michael Russotto played diplomat Richard Greatham, Beth Hylton played socialite Myra Arundel and Susan Lynskey played a lower-middle-class woman named Jackie Coryton. The review has been corrected.