‘Hay Fever’ – Noel Coward style – to hit the RIC stage Nov. 17-21

Bob Colonna
When “Hay Fever” premiered in London in 1925, Noel Coward’s enthusiasm was criminal. Literally.

In his fervor for the production, he was arrested for knocking over flower pots in the West End and spent the night in jail.

The puzzling thing about Coward’s reaction is that “Hay Fever” did not receive unanimous raves. But the year had been auspicious for the 25-year-old playwright. It saw Coward’s acclaimed performance in his own play “The Vortex,” as well as successful productions of another play, “Fallen Angels,” and the revue “On With the Dance.”

Maybe Coward knew something, too. “Hay Fever” has done well over the decades. For instance, in the mid 1960s, when Lawrence Olivier was appointed to create a national theatre in England, one of his first decisions was to have Coward direct “Hay Fever,” with a cast that included Maggie Smith, Lynn Redgrave, Derek Jaocbi and Edith Evans in her last major role.

From Nov. 17-21, audiences at RIC will have a chance to see what the ruckus was all about when Rhode Island College Theatre stages “Hay Fever” in the Nazarian Center’s Forman Theatre. Performances will take place at 8 p.m. from Nov.17-20 and at 2 p.m. on Nov. 20 and 21. Adjunct theatre professor Bob Colonna will direct.

Coward’s play focuses on the Bliss family, who, as Colonna noted, are all artistic, unworldly and mostly innocent. The mother, Judith, is a retired actress who is psychologically still center stage. The father, David, is a novelist. Simon, their son, is a caricaturist, and their daughter, Sorel, has literary inclinations. Problems arise when each of the Blisses, unbeknownst to the other, invites a weekend guest.

Intrigues and flirtations ensue, along with parlor games, which seem to be the Bliss family’s private domain to the frustrating exclusion of the guests, who at the end of the play exit the house furtively, as the Blisses argue over whether or not two streets in Paris connect.

Although Coward is ostensibly poking fun at British eccentricities, his main source is actually American – the family of noted actress Laurette Taylor with whom he stayed when he visited New York in 1921. (Taylor created the role of Amanda in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.”) In his first autobiography, “Present Indicative,” Coward recalls Sunday evenings with “rather acrimonious games” and “shrill arguments concerning rules.”

For all their charm, the Blisses and even their guests can be rude, and this has led critic Michael Billington to dub the play a “comedy of bad manners.”

Colonna said, “They are all rich and have good social standing, and you expect them to behave well, but they don’t. That’s the fun.”

As for a plot, there is none. The director put it this way, “If ‘Waiting for Godot’ is a play where everything happens twice, in this play nothing happens. A friend of mine said it’s like ‘Seinfeld.’”

“Hay Fever” has no deep meaning and is not soul-wrenching either, but that doesn’t mean the play is easy to stage. It is character driven and there are a lot details to get right.

Colonna gave an example from a recent rehearsal. “Last night,” he said, “I was trying to get someone to say ‘ahem’ at just the right moment. It was tough. It takes meticulous timing to be funny.”

Noel Coward. (photo: By George Grantham Bain
Collection (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via
Wikimedia Commons)
Comedy is something Colonna grew up with as he is the son of respected comedian Jerry Colonna, whose career included, among many other things, acting in three popular Bob Hope-Bing Crosby road films and providing the voice of the March Hare in Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland.”

Bob Colonna emphasized that he learned a lot from his father, such as setting up a gag and the all-important timing.

The RIC production of “Hay Fever” is staying close to the script. Colonna is changing a few very obscure words, like “punkah” (a ceiling fan, from India, operated by a cord), but little else.

The set, by theatre professor Christopher Abernathy, is art deco in style and totally period as are the costumes by Charlotte Dunning Burgess, the college’s costume shop supervisor. To add to the realism, the play will be voiced in British accents, and to ensure their authenticity, Colonna is bringing in two English friends of his to act as accent coaches.

As Colonna noted, the nationality of the speakers affects the pace of their speech and that of the play.

“Americans drawl,” he said. “The British are snappy.

“The comic pace has a sprightly rhythm to it. But everything in art is self-contradictory and sometimes you have to slow down and speak clearly. Otherwise, it would be like a fire truck running over a terrier.”

Good comic acting takes a special intuition, and Colonna, who is himself an actor, illustrated one aspect with a story involving another notable father-son pair, comedian Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz”) and his son, theatre critic John Lahr.

The son was watching his father do a routine that he did many times over, but this one time he did something different and got a good laugh.

The son asked the father how he knew to do that, and Bert Lahr replied, “The audience told me.”

Colonna commented, “You can learn a lot from the audience. You surf the audience and read the waves.

“As a director, you send others to do that, then you can adjust it.”

A play like “Hay Fever” requires an especially skilled cast, for it is not the kind of comedy contemporary audiences are used to.

“You have to listen,” Colonna emphasized, “and we’re not used to listening. There are no laugh tracks and no people falling down. The play has an intelligence to it. The audience has to do some work.”

With this production, he is very confident in his cast. “They are the cream of the crop,” he said.

The director also mentioned another surprising but relevant point – the jokes in “Hay Fever” are close to 100 years old.

That could be an advantage, however. “Hay Fever” just might serve as a cure to the common simple-minded comedy and provide a good lift to the spirits. But between laughs remember: fun can take work. It’s just another case of art – and life – being self-contradictory.

General admission is $15. Tickets can be purchased in advance via Visa or MasterCard by calling (401) 456-8144 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, or online at www.ric.edu/pfa.