"Nudity can be a beautiful thing, Clara.” “Blimey! Perhaps me being a dresser has spoiled my eye for it!”
When each member of an English family of artists invites a guest to come down from London for the weekend, the entertainment ranges from group parlor games, which quickly break down into furtive pairs escaping the group, to breast-baring conversations in those pairings, only reinforcing what Clara, the old backstage dresser standing in as housemaid, declares: when you’ve seen a lot of it backstage, somehow the onstage presentation loses its luster.
But here it’s inverted: When what the guests have seen on stage is pressed upon them as being from the heart, the thrill of the first night begins to pale a little.
Noel Coward’s 1920s comedy, Hay Fever, an ensemble show if ever there was one, is put on with panache at Altarena Playhouse, with a cast of nine—four ravenous and infighting family members and four increasingly gun-shy weekenders, plus the redoubtable Clara—directed by artistic director Frederick Chacon, all of them working together to make the pieces fit in a hilarious jigsaw puzzle of a pristine day in the country reflected in a sideshow mirror.
Coward’s extraordinary ear for the offbeat foibles of casual speech sets up a field of simultaneous attractions and repulsions, each little particle starting out sparse, innocuous, if eccentric, in motion, then fusing with other innocent-sounding gaffes to gain a mass and specific gravity that bend light.
At the center is the lady of the house, and formerly of playhouses everywhere, Judith Bliss (in a wonderful show of professional duplicity by Donna Turner—Judith’s duplicity, I mean). In yet another lull between bidding farewell to her public and another triumphant return to the boards, Judith seeks out single spectators and unwilling, but hypnotized, chamber audiences wherever she can find them, soaking in the praise, giving herself to her lucky public—then taking herself away. The poses she strikes are alone worth the price of admission—that is, unless you’re one of the unfortunates who must endure them close up, expected to applaud.
Her two grown, yet quarreling, children, Sorel and Simon (Hannah Ward and William Irons) throw her lines or pelt her with distainful rejoinders. Judith’s husband and father to the spoiled brood, David Bliss (a fishy-eyed Englishman, as Fred Sharkey drolly plays him), is mostly upstairs, “undergoing a novel,” as Ezra Pound put it a few years before Hay Fever. And the guests, as if hand-picked to clash with the Bliss house denizens and each other, include a diplomat (Timothy Beagley), a morose little “flapper” (Jill Seagrave), a catty young lady of society (Lisa Price) and a passive-aggressive athlete (Aaron Pewtherer).
Before long, the family members—when not reading each other out—have skipped out on their own guest to take up with another, only to be replaced by another predatory Bliss householder, eager to court, or hold court. “Do you suppose they know they’re mad?” a guest finally asks in dismay. “No,” replies the diplomat, “People never do.”
The timing of the ensemble becomes as complicated in its own way as a Busby Berkeley floorshow. There’s a mathematical precision to Sir Noel’s survey of giddy imprecision. There are a few hilarious in-the-parlor musical numbers, all for extra-musical purpose, excepting the topper, when Clara, the temperamental dresser and maid, does a nice, perfectly offkey and meter-dumb “Tea for Two,” accompanied by the teacart, as she tidies up after the mayhem.
With Judith leaping about from one heart-rending pose to another like an epileptic Isadora, no wonder a guest finally remarks, “Every time I open my mouth, I’ve been mowed down by theatrical effect!”
“Her sense of the theater is always fatal.”
But if Judith always steals the scene, nobody gets the final word, as the family coagulates into a happy, quarrelsome mass, with David reading them his finished novel (to constant interruption) as the guests give the slip. The closest to an explanation of the whole charade is perhaps that given by David, concerning his own: “The only reason I’ve been annoying is that I want to see things as they are at first, then to pretend to see them as they aren’t.”
Through Aug. 9 at the Altarena Playhouse
1409 High St., Alameda. $17-$20.