Midsummer madness is the current offering of the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey with a peppery production of “Hay Fever,” a 1925 souffle that Noel Coward cooked up in a mere three days. The beautifully crafted charade, very nearly plotless, traces a series of amorous incidents and frivolous conversations among a retired English actress, her novelist husband, their madly precocious children and an assemblage of startled houseguests over a weekend at the thesp’s country home.
Although the comedy is frequently performed in Great Britain, it’s rarely seen in the U.S. A 1970 Broadway revival starred Shirley Booth and John Williams; it came around again 15 years later with Rosemary Harris and Roy Dotrice. The events in the play were inspired by Coward’s visit to the Manhattan home of actress Laurette Taylor and her writer-husband, J. Hartley Manners.
The key to the play’s success is the timing and tempo of Coward’s deliciously well-tempered flippancy. Director Gabriel Barre has accented the rhythm of the dialogue, giving a handsome cast stylish staging, accented by clever bits of business. Barre has beautifully filled lengthy silent pauses, which Harold Pinter would envy, with inspired hilarity.
Jill Gascoine as Judith Bliss beautifully defines the Bohemian grandeur of the piece.
And there’s a bonus: She gets to sing “No, My Heart,” a custardy Coward-like tune written for the 1985 revival by Kander & Ebb.
Edmond Genest lends ideal bluster as Judith’s suave and intolerably bland husband.
Michael Kary goes a tad over the top as the awkwardly impetuous son, but Katherine Leonard as his whining sister is deliciously insipid. Cindy Katz vamps handsomely as a manipulative adder.
Caitlin Miller gives a delicious perf as Coward’s “abject fool,” a sweet, bewildered flapper trapped in a household of eccentric hosts. Her hesitant ascension on a staircase for a dubious rendezvous is both cautiously precious and comically inspired.
Coward often inserted a haplessly irritable maid into the action, and Alison Weller as Clara — who greets the houseguests at the front door armed with a bloody meat cleaver — fills the bill just fine.
James Wolk’s flowery set design is dominated by tasteful furnishings and backed by humongous, colorful wall panels of daisies, butterflies and a leering hummingbird. The elegant period threads designed by Karen A. Ledger define the ’20s and the fanciful characters who wear them.
Scene changes are delightfully accented by the recordings of Great Britain’s grand comic doyenne Beatrice Lillie, who sums up the evening perfectly with “I Went to a Marvelous Party.”