Sara Hymes, Alan Ball, Samantha L. Rosentrater and Andrew Papa in "Hay Fever" at the Hilberry Theatre. Photo: Richard L. Fosbrink

Hilberry actors make hay with Noel Coward

By Martin F. Kohn

Noel Coward's "Hay Fever" is the kind of thing contemporary dramatists disparage as "museum theater" when they complain about what theaters are producing instead of (their) new work.

"Hay Fever," which opens the 2010-2011 Hilberry Theatre season, truly is lesser Coward, lacking the comic-romantic tension of "Private Lives," the supernatural looniness of "Blithe Spirit." It has value as a historical artifact, providing early glimpses of the playwright's hallmarks that would be more successfully realized in his later work: his fondness for eccentrics, his affection for comical maids, his exploration of how infatuation is quickly mistaken for love and how it can evaporate just as rapidly.

For the Hilberry, whose graduate-student members are paid but which is essentially an academic program, "Hay Fever" offers its actors a wealth of educational experience. Sure, they get to play characters from another time and place -- pretty commonplace for actors -- but David J. Magidson has directed the play in the old-school manner: overacting rules the day and nuance and subtlety might as well be the name of a vaudeville team.

The actors aren't just playing characters; they're playing characters the way they might have been played in the 1920s, with a side order of ham, not to mention British accents.

This makes sense. Half of the characters are members of the same privileged, self-absorbed Bliss family -- novelist father, faded actress mother, grown son and daughter who don't do much of anything -- who all tend to overdramatize, comically, everything in their lives.

Four other characters are the people each has invited to the family's sumptuous country house (set by Rudolph C. Schuepbach) for the weekend, with romantic designs. These folks must be played just as broadly as the Blisses or they're apt to be overshadowed. Within minutes, it seems, everyone has wound up with someone else's date. (The ninth and final character is the funny maid.)

The actors work very well individually and as an ensemble, managing their accents and performing broadly without ever going over the top, true to the time of this period piece.

Magidson has allowed a significant anachronism, although it shouldn't diminish anyone's enjoyment. The song "Heart and Soul" is played on stage and as incidental music. "Hay Fever" was written in 1925; John D. Woodland's lovely costumes are very 1920s, and "Heart and Soul" is from 1938. As shorthand, though, for what everyone contributes here, you couldn't find a better title.


'Hay Fever'

Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. Plays in rotating repertory through Dec. 4. $20-$30. 313-577-2972.

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