Hay Fever brings tears of laughter to Olney Theatre

Chris Dinolfo, Valerie Leonard, and Audrey Bertaux as Simon, Judith, and Sorel Bliss in Olney Theatre Center’s production of the comedy HAY FEVER. (Stan Barouh)

Medical science defines hay fever (or pollinosis) as a condition where the immune system overreacts to allergens in the air. Noël Coward may have had such a reaction in mind when he penned the irritatingly irresistible characters in Hay Fever – the current production at Olney Theatre Center.

Directed by Eleanor Holdridge, Hay Fever is a laugh-filled jab at the Bohemian eccentricities of the 1920’s. Coward’s inspiration for the screwball antics of the fictional Bliss family came from visits to the home of his friend, Broadway and silent film actress Laurette Taylor, and her husband, British playwright J. Hartley Manners. Coward would later say of these visits, “It was inevitable that someone should eventually utilize portions of this eccentricity in a play, and I am only grateful to Fate that no guest of the Hartley Manners thought of writing Hay Fever before I did.”

All of the action in the story is set in the great hall of the Bliss family house at Cookham by the River Thames.

Unbeknownst to one-another, the four Bliss family members (retired actress Judith, novelist David, and their two grown children Simon and Sorel Bliss) have each invited guests to stay over for the weekend. Nevermind that there aren’t enough suitable guest rooms or food to feed the crowd, nor that a stream of cutting condescension runs through every conversation. What sounds like a potentially drama-filled donnybrook soon devolves into unintended falderal for a game of one-upmanship by the ironically-named Bliss family.

Chris Dinolfo as Simon Bliss romances a very surprised Jackie played by Susan Lynskey. (Stan Barouh)
Chris Dinolfo as Simon Bliss romances a very surprised Jackie played by Susan Lynskey. (Stan Barouh)

The four guests for the weekend (who arrive in spurts throughout the first act) are Sandy Tyrell – an athletic and much younger admirer of Judith; Myra Arundel – a worldly woman whom Simon has invited; Richard Greatham – a dullard of a diplomat; and Jackie Coryton – a rather slow but sincere young flapper.

Thirty-five minutes into the show, Clare (Judith’s dresser-turned-maid) serves afternoon tea to the mismatched party. At this point, the play begins to feel a bit belabored, but this is by design, as the curtain descends on a very awkward silence.

Over the course of the next few scenes, a certain insanity ensues. Greatham (Sorrel’s guest) makes an awkward pass at Judith – sending the actress off on a dramatic tangent. Simon spirits Jackie off for a walk in the garden, while Sorrel canoodles in the library with Sandy. The already strained situation is completely upended, but it’s all in good fun. At least for the Bliss family. The four guests are not so sure. Do cultured people really act this bizarrely? The Bliss family certainly does! As Sorrel explains to the confused sportsman Sandy, “You kissed me because you were awfully nice and I was awfully nice and we both liked kissing very much. It was inevitable.”

The play ends – of necessity – with one of Coward’s signature touches. Fans of the playwright always find this particular bit to be satisfying; the uninitiated rightly enjoy the laugh.

Director Holdridge has cast this production with nine very capable players; a critical element when staging this sort of high-brow drawing room comedy.

Valerie Leonard shines as the unstable actress Judith Bliss. Leonard is particularly pleasing in her seduction scenes – playing the vacillating vixen to the hilt. Equally effective is Audrey Bertaux as the spoiled daughter Sorel. Paired with the high energy antics of Chris Dinolfo as Simon Bliss, it’s easy to believe father David’s observation that, “The atmosphere of this house is becoming more unbearable every day, and all because Simon and Sorel are allowed to do exactly what they like.”

David Bliss (Matt Sullivan), Judith Bliss (Valerie Leonard), and Myra Arundel (Beth Hylton) in Olney Theatre Center's production of the comedy HAY FEVER. (Photo: Stan Barouh)
David Bliss (Matt Sullivan), Judith Bliss (Valerie Leonard), and Myra Arundel (Beth Hylton) share a strange interlude.  (Stan Barouh)

Matt Sullivan portrays David Bliss with just the right amount of absentminded disengagement. Michael Russotto is surprisingly endearing as the hapless diplomat Richard Greatham.

With so much insanity, it would be easy for Myra (Beth Hylton) Jackie (Susan Lynskey) and Clara (Carol Randolph) to get lost in the mix, but all three make solid foils for the foolishness at hand. Rounding out the cast with comedic aplomb, as the beefy Sandy Tyrell, is Jon Hudson Odom.

On the creative side, scenic designer John Coyne has created a stage which might well be called a tenth character. The mounted ostrich alone is worth the price of admission. Kendra Rai’s costumes are absolutely stunning. From the playful yet smart afternoon attire to the elegant evening dress, one cannot help but wish people still dressed this way today.

The one negative on the creative side may actually be a result of the ladies effervescent evening wear.

Nancy Schertler’s lighting works well until the sequined and lamé gowns appear. At that point, the stage is simply too awash in bright light. Dialing the controls back a few notches may be the only fix needed here, but please have mercy on the viewers eyes.

Hay Fever was one of Noël Cowards earliest hits, and ninety years after its London debut, the play still delights. And like pollinosis, this delicious production will leave the viewer with an itch to see more.

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Olney Theatre Center’s production of Hay Fever runs now – October 4. Running time is a bit less than two hours with one fifteen minute intermission. Olney Theatre Center is located at 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney, Maryland. More information may be found by visiting Olney Theatre Center.