Ignorance is Bliss: "Hay Fever" is Nothing to Sneeze At

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Christina Wellford Scott (l) portrays the matriarch of the over-the-top literary, artful and theatrical Bliss family and discovers shenanigans between her husband, played by Greg Fletcher (r) and a weekend guest, played by Melissa Walker in Noel Coward's comedy Hay Fever at Theatre Memphis on the Lohrey Stage, April 29 - May 15, 2016.
  • Christina Wellford Scott (l) portrays the matriarch of the over-the-top literary, artful and theatrical Bliss family and discovers shenanigans between her husband, played by Greg Fletcher (r) and a weekend guest, played by Melissa Walker in Noel Coward's comedy Hay Fever at Theatre Memphis on the Lohrey Stage, April 29 - May 15, 2016.
“It’s impossible to judge from their public performance whether they have talent or not. They were professional, had a certain guileless charm, and stayed on mercifully for not too long."
— Noel Coward on The Beatles
This isn't a review. I left Hay Fever at intermission.

Don’t judge. It was a beautiful day. Besides, I know how Noel Coward’s 92-year-old comedy of bad manners ends. Also, I think I did a pretty good job arriving on time and staying as long as I did, considering all the people who just didn’t show up in the first place.

That’s a terrible, Cowardy thing to say, but I don’t mean it in a mean way. Maybe nobody gives mom the gift of theater these days. Still, I’d anticipated some Mother’s Day crowd showing up to take in the antics of Sir Noel’s mercurial mommy Judith Bliss, her quirky brood, and all their amorous and unexpected guests. Couldn’t have been more than 60 people in big room. It was shocking at first, given the momentum TM’s built with solid, sold-out productions of Into the Woods, and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). Then the curtain came up and I was less shocked. What transpired was never awful, but it couldn't compete with a sunny afternoon. Or a rainy one if there was something to binge-watch with family, or marbles to be played.

Generic’s the first word. White label, black type: “THEATRE!!!” Mild strutting, intermittent fretting, a brightly-lit set so unencumbered by character it might service a number of scripts, including most Agatha Christies. Where was the personality? The joyous effervescent sparkle? The engaging eccentricity? More to the point, how hard does one have to work to make actors as accomplished as Christina Scott and Kinon Keplinger that flat uninteresting?

Something I know: Hay Fever's funniest moments happen in the act didn’t see, when all the ill-fitting couples uncouple, recouple, and odd couple. It’s also the act where Sorrel, Coward’s handsome young bohemian, announces, "We don't, any of us, ever mean anything," which is true, and the very thing that makes this show crackle when it’s on, and crash when it's not.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Hay Fever, perversely imagining it to be a direct antecedent of Richard O'Brien's Rocky Horror Show, with Judith — a retired grand dame of the stage yearning for her comeback (and a little strange) — standing in for Frankenfurter. But it’s a snootier script and tricky, requiring bold color and just the right blend of personalities. Nothing bores like bored people, and it’s a challenge to wring gay laughter from the antics of rich brats doing beastly things we wouldn’t tolerate from peasantry — unless they were formerly rich. No matter how bold or beautiful it’s not a lot of fun watching privileged folk fight languidly against tedium, the commonplace, and the crushing weight of their own fabulousness. Not when there are fences to mend, children to tend, projects to finish, kites to fly, and sunny days to seize whenever you can seize them. Hay Fever lives and dies by the force of its charm and quirk. Both qualities seemed in short supply.

I want to repeat — These impressions don’t constitute anything like an authoritative review of Hay Fever. How could they? Even if I’d stuck around, how could they? It’s hard to play comedy in a big empty house, and even harder to watch one. Some of the show’s stiffer gags resulted from deliberate choices, but, in addition to the hour of my life I’ll never get back, I want to give this talented company the benefit of the doubt. I’m almost certain this Hay Fever’s had, and will have better days.

I’ve gone on longer than I intended because, unlike food critics who never have to say they’re sorry for not finishing the burned toast, theater hacks are expected to lick plate. So one last thing and then, with sincere apologies, I’m out. Our regional theaters are challenged with providing an experience customers can’t find elsewhere on demand. That’s not to say Theatre Memphis doesn’t do so regularly, or that there’s no room for vintage masterwork. But what we choose to do, large scale or small, requires some special quality to makes it an event. It’s at least got to be the sort of thing you want to take your mom to see.


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