Saturday, September 12, 2015

Noel Coward's Hay Fever

Noel Coward's 1925 play, Hay Fever, which he purportedly wrote in three days, drew us to the Olney Theater today to see it performed by a sterling cast and a fine production. It's early Coward (he was all of 25 or 26 when it opened) and is a country-house comedy where the residents are a "bohemian" family led by a not-quite-retired leading lady of the stage.  They are all prone to be "rude" in the English sense, which means that guests visit for a weekend at their peril.

My first reaction was that there weren't enough good lines exemplary of the wit that Coward infused into such perennials as Private Lives, or in my view, even better, was Design for Living, based on a vision Coward may have once had of living together with the Lunts--Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne--the doyens of the American theater in the 1920s and 30s. There were dead moments when pairs of characters exited the stage and it took a while for the next scene and its characters to get going.

Apparently, in his early days, Coward was delighted by his trips to New York and spent time at a country house inhabited by the leading actress Laurette Taylor and her playwright husband, who were the models for this cast.  Too few recall that Taylor, in her waning days on stage, produced a masterful characterization as the original mother, Amanda Wingfield, in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, when that classic premiered in 1945. 

Taylor's story is worth recalling because it was one for the books. She apparently overcame what had been years of alcoholism to record what was her greatest theatrical triumph. In Hay Fever, however, we see an eccentric actress trying to dominate her family and everyone else, producing nothing but conflict and distress for family and visitors.

Coward's being gay was never disclosed during his lifetime and his supreme archness and charm became legendary. The man was unstoppable from childhood in his love for performing (his autobiography was entitled A Talent to Amuse) which he carried on by putting on cabaret shows in which he sang his own classic songs in his late years. He staged patriotic morale-boosting shows in London in World War II and deserves to be remembered as an ornament of the theater.

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