Olney Theatre Center's production of "Hay Fever" is drenched with so many glowing, vibrant colors that it takes a while to notice the one that isn't there.
One woman wears lemon yellow and a green the shade of iceberg lettuce, another floats by in sea-green and watery blue, while a third is dressed in a pale pink that approximates ripening fruit. It's a rich palette, but a cool one. Nowhere is there a single drop of red.
The omission is no accident. Human passions are strikingly absent from the world that Noel Coward creates in "Hay Fever." There is no sexual fire. No one sees red; no one is vulnerable enough to bleed.
A visitor to the bohemian British household where the play is set cries out in exasperation: "You haven't got one sincere or genuine feeling among the lot of you! You're artificial to the point of lunacy!"
Well, yes. But artifice can be awfully funny, particularly in the hands of a master such as Coward and a production as adroit as this one.
The play takes place over a weekend in the 1920s at the country home of a self-absorbed novelist, his wife, a recently retired grand dame of the theater, and their two grown children. Each family member has invited a guest for the weekend, to the dismay of the others - and eventually, to the dismay of the guests themselves.
This is a play about games, a theme Coward makes explicit in the second act, when the characters literally play a game of adverbs. Some games are overt, while others are hidden; some are benign, while others are not.
One game is the social dance. We see it in the first act when two strangers who have been abandoned by their hosts make polite small talk. The scene has been precisely choreographed by director John Going as a verbal waltz gone horribly awry: He steps on her feet. Her palms are sweaty. He doesn't watch where he's going. She tries to lead. Finally, they both stand still in bewilderment as the music swirls on without them.
Another game could be called "guess my motivation." The family members don't admit to their guests the true reasons they invited them for the weekend. For instance, playwright David Bliss has invited a naive ingenue because he wants to study her for his current novel. But the guests have covert motives themselves; a vamp accepts the son's invitation because she wants to seduce the father.
The final type of game might be called, "It's your cue." We all see ourselves as the center of our own personal dramas, but Judith Bliss is more likely than most to regard other people merely as props.
During the play, she adopts several roles in rapid succession: the squire's lady, the woman willing to forsake all for love, bereaved mother, betrayed spouse. Her family adapts readily; through long experience they've learned the roles they're expected to play. As Sorel Bliss, the daughter, notes: "One always plays up to Mother in this house. It's a sort of unwritten law." But the guests are completely unnerved when Judith's role-playing is taken to outlandish extremes. For example, one woman ends up affianced - without her consent - to a man she met that afternoon.
The plot of "Hay Fever" is lighter than air, so audiences can be fooled into thinking it's a breeze to perform. But that's not true. "Hay Fever" is an anomaly - a comedy in which the humor arises not from the dialogue, which isn't particularly witty, but from the situations in which the characters find themselves. So as Coward noted, the show requires a top-notch cast and director to pull it off. This production has both.
Director Going has a real feel for Coward and paces the play briskly. Only in the third act breakfast scene does the timing seem off and the comedy labored.
Going elicits sharp and focused performances from his cast, particularly two houseguests: Michelle Six plays the ingenue who is two curls short of a hairdo, and when her character encounters a complex thought, she tilts her head to one side as if it were literally too heavy for her fragile brain. David Staller, who portrays a befuddled diplomat, is a master of the delayed reaction. When a zinger is delivered at his expense, the meaning reaches the diplomat's brain a full second before it reaches his face. We see his ingratiating smile gradually slide off his face like melting frosting.
Judith, of course, is the chief gale in the Bliss family weather system, and Patricia Hodges manages the neat feat of turning in a nicely proportioned performance of a woman who is larger than life. She portrays the character without an ounce of sentimentality, and she gets a helping hand from Jim Alford's costumes.
In the second act, she wears a dark green dress adorned with long silk and velvet scarves that look for all the world like fins. She seems a kind of tropical fish, as brilliantly colored and as cold-blooded.
Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney
When: Through July 1
Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $15-$32 Call: 301-924-3400