- The Washington Times - Friday, November 11, 2005

You wouldn’t want Judith Bliss (Pamela Payton-Wright) to be your mother — this combination of Mommie Dearest and Auntie Mame would mean a lifetime on the therapist’s couch — but for a few hours in Centerstage’s perfectly unhinged production of “Hay Fever,” she’s an unmitigated delight.

Starstruck on herself, sublimely self-absorbed, more theatrical than a slew of melodramas, Judith is a retired actress savoring an uninterrupted love affair with the spotlight. Miss Payton-Wright strikes poses worthy of Greek statuary and is never finer than when feeling sorry for herself. Her chin delicately wobbles, her eyes moisten as she fixes her gaze on the middle distance and natters on about her affinity for the cypress — “such sad, little trees” she opines.

The inspiration for Judith Bliss in Noel Coward’s comedy was his friend Laurette Taylor, the American actress who created the role of Amanda Wingfield from “The Glass Menagerie.” The gatherings Miss Taylor held with her husband, writer J. Hartley Manners, were legendary — not merely for the hospitality, but for the glittering guests (the Barrymores, the Lunts, Ina Claire, Alla Nazimova, Leslie Howard) and the savage parlor games to which everyone was subjected.

In “Hay Fever,” Mr. Coward expands his recollections of Miss Taylor into an entire family of indulgent bohemians living in a country house as elegantly wacky as they are — as demonstrated by Alexander Hodge’s stunner of a set, a two-story affair where the walls are crammed with oddly hung paintings, tribal masks and stuffed and mounted animals.

The Blisses are blithely ignorant of the maddening effect they have on others. Just how skillfully they drive people crazy comes to light when all four of them invite houseguests for the weekend.

Father David (Nicholas Hormann) is a distracted novelist of bodice-rippers who has a jittery young flapper, Jackie Coryton (Anna Camp), come to the country house from London “for research purposes.” Judith is welcoming Sandy Tyrell (Charles Daniel Sandoval), a rabid fan who also happens to be a shapely boxer.

Artist son Simon (Harry Barandes) has asked the vampy Myra Arundel (Sara Surrey) for the weekend, and his tomboyish sister, Sorel (Cheryl Lynn Bowers), has a beau for a houseguest, the diplomat Richard Greatham (Brad Heberlee).

This being a high-society farce, by the time after-dinner drinks are served, everyone has switched partners and the poor, befuddled guests don’t know whether the Blisses are devotees of free love or the whole thing is an elaborate party game.

The first act of “Hay Fever” takes a while to rev up, although there is a daffily comical scene in which the invitees are left to forage for themselves as the family members help themselves to tea and buttered bread, completely ignoring their company.

Their eccentric tunnel vision comes to inspired fruition at the top of the second act, when the assembled (clad in sensational evening clothes by Linda Cho that make the stage look like an Erte drawing) are forced to participate in a party game in which they have to act “in the manner of the word,” in this case, an adverb.

The guests helplessly try to figure out how to pantomime “winsomely” while the family barrages them with insults and unhelpful hints concerning their performances.

Director Will Frears takes this comic momentum and keeps it humming throughout the second half, right up until the invitees creep out of the house while the Blisses noisily enjoy their breakfast and argue over nothing like Jazz Age versions of the cast from “Seinfeld,” only with better clothes and vocabularies.

The Bliss household may be, as one guest calls it, “a featherbed of false emotion,” but the dashing artificiality of the characters provides plenty of cushiony pleasure.

Miss Surrey plays the man-hungry Myra with crisp vengeance — her lethal Louise Brooks looks heightened by black-and-white costumes that suggest a less cartoony and more soignee version of Cruella de Vil. Miss Bowers gives Sorel a splendid dichotomy —on one hand, she is thoroughly fed up with the family’s beastliness, but on the other, she cannot resist participating in the giddy mind games. Mr. Heberlee brings an elegant, gliding slapstick to his scenes, and Mr. Barandes is a blase wonder as Simon.

“Hay Fever” is a trifle, but a highly enjoyable one.

From a polite distance, you will never be in better company than with the Blisses.

***

WHAT: “Hay Fever” by Noel Coward

WHERE: Centerstage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Dec. 4.

TICKETS: $10 to $60

PHONE: 410/332-0033MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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