Sunday, April 08, 2012

A Massive And Irritating Flop

On Friday night, my middle brother and Joshua and I went to The Guthrie Theater to see The Guthrie’s presentation of Noel Coward’s 1925 comedy of manners, “Hay Fever”. Oddly, the current “Hay Fever” is The Guthrie’s very first production of the play, one of Coward’s most-oft-performed works.

The production was not good. I suspect that “Hay Fever” can be made to work only if an incomparable cast of actors has been assembled, a cast that can deliver every single line with stylish and effortless virtuosity. What we saw Friday night was a cast of actors not genuinely comfortable with Coward’s thin-as-paper material and unable to deliver Coward’s lines with the polished nonchalance the play demands.

“Hay Fever” is not a strong play, even by Coward standards. It concerns the Bliss family, Mr. and Mrs. Bliss and the Bliss son and the Bliss daughter, each of whom invites a weekend guest to the Bliss estate outside London without telling anyone else in the family. When the four guests arrive, the result is consternation throughout the household—on the part of the Bliss family as well as on the part of the guests. The guests are unable to accommodate themselves to the quirky behavior of the Bliss family, while the Bliss family is so supremely self-obsessed that it is unaware of the disconcerting effect it has on outsiders. The weekend guests, caught in an impossible situation, decide to leave early, sneaking out without the Bliss family even being aware that the guests are departing—at which point the play ends.

“Hay Fever” is supposed to represent an entertaining examination of high-society inter-war Britain, a frivolous social milieu with endless weekend house parties in the country, but the play is a one-note affair, lacking genuine wit, well-drawn characters and interesting situations.

At the center of the play is Mrs. Bliss, a retired actress apparently ready to return to the thespian boards any minute if the sweeping theatricality of her conduct in private life is any guide. Mrs. Bliss is supposed to be an irresistible role for an actress “of a certain age”, but the role is insufficiently written and may be impossible to play.

The Mrs. Bliss at The Guthrie was Harriet Harris, a skilled actress who has shown in her television work that she can shine in arch roles. Harris’s Mrs. Bliss, however, was not arch—Harris’s Mrs. Bliss was, instead, camp. Harris played Mrs. Bliss as Madame Arcati, the wrong Coward role in the wrong Coward play, and Harris did so probably because there is no genuine character beneath the veneer of Mrs. Bliss’s nonstop theatrics for Harris to latch onto.

It is likely that no one can play Mrs. Bliss to satisfaction. My parents saw Rosemary Harris come to grief in the role of Mrs. Bliss on Broadway in 1986—and if the great Rosemary Harris could not bring Mrs. Bliss to life, probably no one can. My parents say that Rosemary Harris walked around the stage for three acts positively exuding radiance at every turn—and otherwise totally lost, utterly unable to find any grounded center in the part.

Harriet Harris lacks the innate radiance of Rosemary Harris. The result was that the Mrs. Bliss of Harriet Harris was fundamentally unattractive if not grotesque. That Harriet Harris was poorly costumed, poorly made-up and poorly coiffed by The Guthrie merely reinforced the camp nature of her portrayal.

The other cast members were no better. Simon Jones, a fine actor, was able to do nothing with the role of the much-put-upon Mr. Bliss. Barbara Bryne overdid the daffiness of the part of the maid until she became insufferable (Bryne had played the very same part in the Rosemary Harris production my parents had seen on Broadway long ago). The other cast members were at sea, variously overplaying and underplaying their parts, never finding any consistent tone, never discovering any meat on their characters’ bones.

A British stage director had been imported from London to direct “Hay Fever”, and I am surprised that he allowed the Guthrie production to be so broadly played. A comedy of manners, to be successful, must be subtle and finely-etched. There was nothing subtle or finely-etched about the Guthrie production.

The Guthrie performed “Hay Fever” with a single intermission. The intermission came after Act I, which made for a very long second half—and which interfered, fatally, with the careful three-part symmetry of Coward’s structure. Perhaps the most skillful element of Coward’s play is its construction: each of the three acts begins in a flurry of expository activity and dialogue; each of the three acts ends in awkward silence.

The Guthrie had devoted buckets of money to the production. “Hay Fever” featured elaborate and expensive stage designs and costume designs, all faithful to the period. The designs, alas, were not attractive, and did not display the surface elegance the play requires.

“Hay Fever” was, all in all, intensely disappointing. Three “name” actors had been engaged, lavish resources had been devoted to the production, and two months of rehearsals and a month of performances had already been under the cast’s belt by the time we caught the production. Yet The Guthrie’s “Hay Fever” was, I thought, a massive and irritating flop.

My parents will see “Hay Fever” next week. It will be interesting to see what they think of the production.

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