An inability to distinguish between high comedy and farce, and between "artificial" and "fake," has crippled many a production of Wilde, Shaw and Orton, and it accounts for the Old Globe's woeful revival of Noel Coward's "Hay Fever."

An inability to distinguish between high comedy and farce, and between “artificial” and “fake,” has crippled many a production of Wilde, Shaw and Orton, and it accounts for the Old Globe’s woeful revival of Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever.” Widely acclaimed, except by those who have witnessed productions like this one, as among the most brilliant comedies ever written in English, the 1924 gem has been misconceived virtually from top to bottom, with only the designers hitting the right notes and a single player emerging as the last comic standing.

The plot could not be simpler (another confusion; “simple” doesn’t mean “easy to stage”). The Bliss family country home is a full house of drama queens, a quartet within whom ego and gall have been substituted for flesh and blood. Aging thespienne Judith (Judith Lightfoot Clarke) grasps every conversation as occasion for a star turn, while hack novelist David (John Windsor-Cunningham) moonlights as an ineffectual roue and vain, feckless children Simon (Santino Fontana) and Sorel (Sarah Grace Wilson) prove that apples can indeed fall too close to the tree.

For all their flaws, they are, or ought to be, delightfully wicked and gay (in the 1920s sense), all the more so by contrast with the grayly conventional paramours each has summoned to spend the weekend as their careless playthings, at least until the bemused invitees are able to effect a getaway.

Trivial? Au contraire, in the presence of exquisite technique in which we sense the characters’ commitment to achieving life-and-death objectives even as they casually toss off bon mots and easy insults. Sadly, helmer Robert Longbottom’s commitment is to broad self-consciousness as he permits, indeed encourages, his cast to declaim loudly, run into doors and make funny faces as if this comedy of bad manners were “Noises Off” — a worthy farce but as different from “Hay Fever” as “Hairspray” is from “Hamlet.”

As one example out of a dozen, in act one Coward has Judith and the kids enact a scene from one of her old melodramas, so that in act two we’ll understand — as the guests don’t — when the Blisses suddenly start speaking the selfsame dialogue. Longbottom’s imposition of mood lighting, David’s announcing the title and Simon’s piano accompaniment ensures that not even the dimmest guest could mistake the coarse acting for reality, and a world-famous act-closer thereby lays an egg.

In scene after scene, the visitors leap up and strain for laughs rather than simply reacting to the chaos. Though diplomatist Richard is described as “not giving yourself away an inch,” Alan Campbell’s every reaction is spread across his face. Sweet young thing Jackie (Bridget Moloney) might as well be lit by a neon sign reading “nitwit,” while cosmopolitan vamp Myra (Yvonne Woods) lacks as much energy as fresh-faced, athletic Sandy (Brian M. Slaten) lacks presence.

As for the home team scorecard, Windsor-Cunningham wanders vaguely in the manner of a dotty granddad as Fontana and housekeeper Clara (Mikel Sarah Lambert) connects with the back row but with no one onstage. Clarke’s Judith waves her hands and mechanically acts out nouns as if signing the play for the hearing-impaired but shows no interest in gauging others’ reactions to her performances — surely the first requirement for believably portraying an actress who’s never offstage.

Wilson’s scintillating Sorel runs off with the whole shebang, bewailing her own ill-breeding and lack of restraint even as her practiced lunging and posing reveal a princess deliciously content within her domain. Wilson gets the style, as does costumer Gregg Barnes in such subtly witty comments as Judith’s Empress of China evening wear, or Simon’s stylishly rolled-up pajama sleeves as he affects to have just emerged from bed.

Andrew Jackness’ living room is impeccably and suitably dressed for high style, but not for the inappropriate buffoonery it’s forced to host.

Hay Fever

Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, San Diego; 581 seats; $62 top

Production

An Old Globe presentation of a play in three acts by Noel Coward. Directed by Robert Longbottom.

Creative

Sets  Andrew Jackness; costumes, Gregg Barnes; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound design, Paul Peterson; stage manager, Tracy Skoczelas. Reviewed July 22, 2007. Opened July 19. Runs through Aug. 19. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast

Judith Bliss - Judith Lightfoot Clarke Sorel Bliss - Sarah Grace Wilson Simon Bliss - Santino Fontana David Bliss - John Windsor-Cunningham
With: Alan Campbell, Mikel Sarah Lambert, Bridget Moloney, Brian M. Slaten, Yvonne Woods.
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