TAMPA — Noel Coward's Hay Fever bubbles over with deliciously wry dialogue, and his very British stiff-lipped characters are wonderfully unpleasant. But Coward's 1924 play about an odd family and four unfortunate houseguests is virtually plotless. It really has to be the actors, more so than Coward's great words, who make the play work.
And the current staging by Jobsite Theater at the Shimberg Playhouse definitely works. The nine-person cast, headed by Caroline Jett and directed by David M. Jenkins, delivers stylish caricatures that make for a thoroughly entertaining evening.
Jett plays Judith Bliss, the matriarch of a family of artsy snobs. Judith is a former grande dame of the British stage who's planning a comeback that everyone but she knows is impossible. She maintains her stage persona even in her own home, over-emoting in mundane conversation and speaking in haughty tones with sweeping gestures. She's a less-tragic Norma Desmond mixed with a less-gruesome Baby Jane Hudson.
Judith, her daughter, her son and her husband (Caitlin Eason, Spencer Meyers and Owen Robertson) all happen to invite guests to spend the same weekend at the family's vacation house. Each of the guests expects a relaxing, perhaps even romantic, couple of days. Instead, they become bit-part players in a comic drama that the Bliss family seems to have played out many times before.
One aspect of this production that makes it so much fun is that Jenkins and the cast have chosen to keep the acting style in sync with the play's action. The performances are very 1920s, broad and deliberately theatrical, almost vaudevillian, and they lend an anachronistic tone that suits the play and the dialogue perfectly.
Some of the best moments — besides those that go to Jett, who gets the most generous allotment — belong to Eason and Meyers, and to Katie Castonguay as the painfully shy young guest who is reduced to tears by the Bliss family. But there are plenty of wicked lines and delicate predicaments for the other guests, played wonderfully by Michael C. McGreevy, Chris Jackson and Amy Gray. Dana Kovar, as the family's housekeeper, does solid work, but her character doesn't have a lot to do.
Katrina Stevenson's costumes are wonderful, especially the ridiculous flowing gowns that Judith Bliss favors. Brian Smallheer's set is fine but doesn't add much to the flavor of the production.
There are a couple of minor problems with the casting. Robertson looks far too young to be the father of the Bliss children, and it's kind of hard to buy the very slender Jackson as a boxer.
But those are some mighty tiny nits to pick at. Jobsite's Hay Fever does not aim to do anything but entertain, and it does that very well.
Times correspondent Marty Clear can be reached at [email protected]