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HAY FEVER at ICTC needs a little Claritin

THE BASICS: HAY FEVER, a 1924 comedy by English Playwright Noel Coward presented by the Irish Classical Theatre Company, directed by Gordon McCall, starring Josephine Hogan, David Oliver, Marisa Caruso, Jordan Levin, Hillary Walker, David Lundy, Melissa Levin, Jacob Albarella, and Andrea Gollhardt opened on June 2 and runs through June 25, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 3 & 7:30, and Sundays at 2 at the Andrews Theatre, 625 Main Street (853-ICTC). Full service cozy bar, coffee, snacks. Runtime 2-1/2 hours with two intermissions.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  At an English country house in the 1920s the four rather odd members of the too tightly-knit but constantly bickering Bliss family each invite a guest of the opposite sex to spend the weekend. As is de rigueur in country house plays, everyone pairs off, but not with the person who invited them. However, by Act III, the rude and self-centered behavior of the hosts drives the four guests to form an alliance and flee during breakfast the following morning.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: The venerable Shaw Festival has been missing the mark with direction this season and this current presentation by the Irish Classical Theatre Company, which locally presents Shaw Festival worthy material, seems right in step with the Shaw in every way. As with the Shaw, the production elements are first rate – set, sound, lights, costumes, and on-stage talent – yet something is missing.

The set by Paul Bostaph is, typical of Bostaph, truly a joy to see.

But, first let’s say what’s good here. The set by Paul Bostaph is, typical of Bostaph, truly a joy to see. Picking up on the alternating black and white keys of the on-stage piano, every piece of furniture has that toothy element, with an added bit of colorful whimsy. Paul is definitely in touch with his inner Mary Englebright. And, so typical of Tom Makar, Sound Design is spot on with a master’s touch, not heavy handed but just a delight. And, the lighting by Brian Cavanaugh is solid and adds to the play without being obtrusive.

David Bliss (David Oliver) has his romantic sights set on Myra Arundel (Hilary Walker) and sparks begin to fly

The costumes by Lise Harty deserve special mention, and are truly Shaw worthy. Usually in period pieces, the women get to wear something special while the men’s clothing is just so-so, but here everyone gets a costume that looks good on them and adds to their character.

And let’s single out some actors who do a super job but got bad direction. First, Jordan Levin as Simon Bliss, the son, has the body and moves of a rich kid, seems very easy in his skin, and he wears his clothes well. Great casting. My quibble is that having recently seen Levin as the prickly leader of the troupe in THE SHAKESPEARE STEALER as well as Templeton the rat in CHARLOTTE’S WEB I know that he can play the slightly heavy role well. We need him to lighten up a little here.

And Melissa Levin as Jackie Coryton, the flapper, also holds her own, but begs the Joker’s question: “Why so serious?” She’s not a suffragette. She’s a party girl. So let her be one.

And Josephine Hogan as the mother, Judith Bliss, needs to be more over the top right away, and certainly at the curtain line. It was a shame to keep her character so hemmed in.

I must say that the character of Sorel Bliss, the daughter, came the closest to ideal in terms of direction. As acted by Marisa Caruso, she alone invited the audience in on the joke, but not always.

Sandy Tryell (Jocob Albarella) can’t believe his luck when the mercurial Sorel Bliss (Marisa Caruso) shows an interest in his romantic advances

And a quick shout-out to Jacob Albarella who usually plays not too endearing, kind of a slob, maybe slightly disreputable roles, but here is well cast and well directed in what I’ll call a grown up, responsible role, but with nice Theatre of Youth style comic touches.

So, what’s wrong with this production? I’d say it’s the direction. It’s boring. The play by Noel Coward, whose PRESENT LAUGHTER, PRIVATE LIVES, and BLITHE SPIRIT are also never out of repertoire is what they call a “comedy of manners.” The best of these are by Oscar Wilde and typically they poke gentle fun at various classes while the characters utter memorable quips. Unfortunately, in HAY FEVER, there really aren’t any memorable quips, per se. And instead of poking gentle fun, the Bliss family are presented as self-absorbed to the point of being sociopathic. They aren’t eccentric; they’re mean.

How could this be fixed? If each of the Bliss family were more over-the-top that would be a start. As it is, they seem a bit too normal, and so their bickering seems realistically nasty and makes us uncomfortable. Then, because we in the audience aren’t let in on the joke (that this family is NUTS), their treatment of their guests seems abominable. If early on we understood that this is a very weird, entirely too close-knit a family that is not necessarily evil, just incredibly self-centered and focused on mom the faded melodramatic actress, then we could be laughing at the situations. Instead, the Bliss family comes across as bad guys.

Now, believe me, if you want to make a political statement or create a drama, then by all means have bad guys. But if you want to have a comedy, then we have to know that this is a comedy early on.

Photos: Gene Witkowski

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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