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(COMEDY REVIVAL; SAVOY THEATER: 1,065 SEATS; 30 [pounds sterling] ($48) TOP)

LONDON A Duncan C. Weldon, Allan S. Gordon, Ira Pittelman, Bill Haber, Elan V. McAllister and Emanuel Azenberg presentation of a play in two acts by Noel Coward. Directed by Declan Donnellan. Sets and costumes, Nick Ormerod; lighting, Tanya Burns; sound, Paul Arditti; movement, Jane Gibson; music arrangements, Paddy Cunneen. Opened, reviewed June 14, 1999. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.
Judith Bliss                            Geraldine McEwan
David Bliss                                 Peter Blythe
Sorel Bliss                                 Monica Dolan
Simon Bliss                               Stephen Mangan
Myra Arundel                         Sylvestra le Touzel
Richard Greatham                        Malcolm Sinclair
Sandy Tyrell                                 Scott Handy
Clara                                         Anne White
Jackie Coryton                          Cathryn Bradshaw

With: Caroline Lennon, Andrew McDonald, Giles Smith, Barbara Wedel.

I've been mowed down by theatrical effects," Myra laments late on in "Hay Fever," and after watching Declan Donnellan's strenuously bizarre revival of Noel Coward's ever-delicious play, audiences will know only too well what she means.

Making his first commercial foray into the West End since the musical "Martin Guerre," Donnellan here interrupts a bracing streak of reinterpretations of the classics that have included his touring French-language "Le Cid" and a Russian-language "Winter's Tale" for the Maly Theater of St. Petersburg. Oddly, on the evidence of a production as overwrought and misconceived as it is undeniably fascinating, Coward's elegantly cruel 1925 comedy would seem to be more foreign to Donnellan than the rigors of Corneille.

This "Hay Fever" may be an object lesson in star Geraldine McEwan's singular swooping voice, but it's also an instructive example of a director and a play failing to mesh. It's little surprise -- given his impressive career to date -- that Donnellan would want to approach "Hay Fever" afresh, buttressed by his customary designer (and real-life partner) Nick Ormerod and by numerous alums of his now-dormant Cheek By Jowl company. But it's one thing to attempt to release the innate energy of this fearsome comedy of narcissism, and another to impose upon Coward's highly ingenious structure the rip-roaring theatrics that allowed Stephen Daldry so famously to refashion "An Inspector Calls."

Daldry's experiment worked largely because it was emotionally true to J.B. Priestley's own intention, which could not have been further from the realm of the well-ordered, well-made play within which "Inspector" often wrongly comes to call. "Hay Fever," on the other hand, is so stealthily and astutely constructed that it doesn't need much embellishment to clue us in to the idiosyncrasies of characters who are already excess incarnate.

Donnellan forever italicizes a play that tends to wither under his attack. Ormerod's Bliss household is set not in a homey if messy hall but in a vaguely Gothic baronial dwelling that colludes with Tanya Burns' funereal lighting to lend an air of gloom from the start. Nor is that emphasis dispelled by Donnellan's bookending the extant script with prolonged extracts from the ludicrous melodrama "Love's Whirlwind," in which the ever-actressy thesp Judith has made her career. The new opening does permit one good sight gag, but it also gets the play off to a heavy-handed start that no amount of authentically fizzy Coward repartee can quite shake off.

McEwan should be an ideal Judith, since she's a true theater animal who isn't afraid to be ripely theatrical. (Consider, for starters, the extraordinary animation of her Tony-nominated work on Broadway last year in "The Chairs," a ferociously funny performance that went on to break your heart.) But the sad truth is that she's not nearly as funny as she would be if this woman forever betrothed to the footlights were allowed to play at least some of her passions for real. Occasionally, a glimpse of truth comes popping through, much like the flowers that Judith is famously naming at the start of the play.

Voicing in her distinctive purr Judith's "wistful and weary spirit," McEwan lays bare -- however briefly -the person behind the posturing of a gorgon who exists at some remove from the blithe spirit that Rosemary Harris presented in her Broadway stint as Judith in 1985. Mostly, though, she cuts as incredible and unreal a figure as the florid leading lady of "Love's Whirlwind": You watch transfixed at a game performer's commitment to a conceit that doesn't pay off.

The rest of the cast mostly falls into line with the leading lady, with Sylvestra le Touzel particularly ill-suited to her Theda Bara-ish turn as Myra, the part that provided an early career triumph for Maggie Smith. As was true of "Inspector," the juvenile leads here play their parts at top volume, sometimes spilling into the auditorium to do so. But when son Simon (Stephen Mangan) crawls across the sofa to give mom a more-than-filial smooch, one seems to have moved beyond even Coward's celebration of bad manners into some weird parody of "Les Parents Terribles." If anything, the guests emerge more creditably than their hosts, with top honors going to the two "drearies"-- Cathryn Bradshaw's giggly Jackie and Malcolm Sinclair's "diplomatist" Richard, whose mishap with a barometer constitutes the evening's single funniest encounter.

As reappraisals go in this Coward centenary year, "Hay Fever" at least compels attention in a way not managed either by last month's washout concert premiere of "After the Ball" or the National's ongoing, and wildly miscast, staging of "Private Lives." But more than once, the effect is of a director steamrolling into submission a play that is more resilient than perhaps anyone realized. It's as if Donnellan felt compelled to add his own cheekiness to Coward's bravura display of what Edward Albee would some decades later call "get the guest." Such an approach, however, really is bad manners in a comic milieu where -- as Coward knew best-- nothing is more fully subversive than style.3
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Date:Jun 21, 1999
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