There’s something shocking about this play.
Playwright Noël Coward himself says critics have noted that “Hay Fever” has no plot and few, if any, witty lines. But what it does have is attitude, and the attitude it has will either leave you shaking your head in horror or marveling at the brilliant job it does of skewering its characters. It all depends on how it’s played, and the Hampton Theatre Company is putting up a valiant effort right now of playing it right.
The story is simple: the four members of the eccentric Bliss family each invite a houseguest over for the weekend without telling the other members of their family, and then they all proceed to treat their guests horribly until they all leave.
Coward, who wrote “Hay Fever” over the course of three days in 1924, based the characters on British playwright Hartley Manners and his wife, American silent film actress Laurette Taylor, whom he visited on his first trip to New York in 1921.
The fictional Bliss family — parents Judith and David, played by HTC veterans Rosemary Cline and Andrew Botsford, and their adult children, Sorel and Simon, played by HTC newcomers Gabriella Campagna and Bobby Peterson — aren’t exactly boorish people. But their denial of their feelings, their insensitivity to the feelings of their guests, their voracious sexual appetites and the wall they’ve built around themselves in order to protect their insular lives, is so realistic and raw that you can’t help but squirm in your seat.
It may be a familiar feeling to folks who’ve either been houseguests or hosted houseguests in the Hamptons for a holiday weekend. We all have ideas about how families behave that we may believe are normal, but could seem abhorrent to other people. But it’s hard to imagine a playwright today being able to so rawly skewer people who have invited them into their homes. It’s difficult to even imagine why someone would choose to take the time to write a play skewering someone who hosted them in their home.
The answer to that question lies, to some extent, in the time period in which the play is set — the Roaring 20s, which have been on the comeback in the public consciousness, represent the pinnacle of self-absorbed wealthy bad behavior, which was much in need of skewering at the time.
Even the recent economic downtown hasn’t dampened the ability of the wealthy to behave badly — in fact, that bad behavior seems all the more garish in places like the Hamptons now, in light of the struggles facing much of the rest of the country.
This production nails the time frame — the period costumes, designed by Teresa Lebrun, are perfect, and the set design and decoration by Peter-Tolin Baker and director Diana Marbury, down to the raised panel wall coverings and the silver coffee pot, is superb.
The cast does a terrific job with the tough and sometimes tongue-twisting material — they deserve kudos just for nailing the affected accents of these horrible people. Their comic timing, already starting to hum by the time we saw the play the day after opening night, is bound to improve throughout the run.
Rosemary Cline steals the stage as the melodramatic matron of the house, swooning, fainting and creating much of the intrigue that drives the thin plot. Bobby Peterson turns in boisterous performance as her son.
He and Ms. Campagna pull off a memorable scene in the second act, subjecting their guests to an awful game that’s somewhat like charades, but only involves adverbs.
Ms. Marbury is a great relief as Clara, the flustered housekeeper who had once been Ms. Bliss’s makeup artist. Clara is the only person being real in the whole household, and every time she tells the truth about what we’re all witnessing, it’s like a fresh breeze is forced through this stifled house.
Their befuddled guests can’t help this horror. Amanda Griemsmann excels as airheaded Jackie, who was invited to the house by David Bliss. She doesn’t have to say much of anything to express her bafflement over what is going on. Simon’s vampy guest, Myrna, is well-played by Jane Cortney. Anthony Famulari and Matthew Conlon are good sports as guests Sandy Tyrell and Richard Greatham.
Each of these guests was invited by one Bliss or another for a weekend of romantic intrigue, but ended up the victims of the entire family’s dysfunction. This message about the dangers of repressed emotions is as relevant and necessary today as it was nearly 100 years ago.
“Hay Fever” runs through June 7 at the Quogue Community Hall on Jessup Avenue. Showtimes are Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.. More information is available online at www.hamptontheatre.or