Review: The Bliss Family Sets a Chaotic Table for Their Guests in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever at City Lit

A high farce, a comedy of manners, a play named after an irrelevant medical condition. Those would be a few ways to describe Noel Coward’s 1925 play, Hay Fever, now on stage at City Lit Theater. Terry McCabe’s crisp direction makes great use of Coward’s dialogue and McCabe paces his actors to emphasize the characters’ eccentricities. 

Hay Fever, set in June 1925 at a home in a London suburb, features the four Bliss family members. Judith (Betsy Pennington Taylor) is a retired stage actor, who is rethinking her retirement. David (Stephen Fedo) is a novelist, finishing up his latest book. Their unmarried children are Sorel (Lizzie Williams) and Simon (Travis Shanahan). All four, it turns out, have invited guests for the weekend without consulting the others. Thus an ongoing joke is who will sleep in the Japanese room, which is “essentially feminine and entirely unsuited” for men.

The four guests are unknown to each other until their arrival—and soon become enmeshed in the Bliss family’s confusing and arbitrary behavior. A brief kiss, for instance, brings on the announcement of an engagement by Simon. The family members leap to melodramatic conclusions for the slightest reasons. Adding to the chaotic milieu is Clara, the maid, played with cranky panache by marssie Mencotti. 

marssie Mencotti as Clara and Betsy Pennington Taylor as Judith Bliss. Photo by Steve Graue.

Hay Fever really has no plot. It’s just eight people thrown together for less than 24 hours; the planned festive dinner and weekend turn into pandemonium. The first guest to arrive is Sandy Tyrell (Robert Hunter Bry), an athletic young admirer of Judith Bliss. Richard Greatham (a “frightfully well-known diplomatist” played by Gerrit Wilford), invited by Sorel, and Jackie Coryton (Melissa Brausch), invited by David to be interviewed for something, meet at the train station and arrive together. Myra Arundel (Elizabeth Wigley), of whom Simon speaks fondly, arrives to round out the crowd. 

The Blisses and their guests meet, pair off and then pair off again. Each time, the unconventional Bliss family members manage to shock and confuse their more conventional guests; this is the source of most of the humor in Coward’s script. By the end of act two, it’s Sunday morning—and now I’m going to engage in a spoiler. The four guests agree they can’t possibly remain for the rest of the weekend and decamp in Sandy’s motorcar. As they stealthily depart, the Bliss family is arguing fiercely over language used in David’s final chapter, which he tries to read to them as the lights go down.

McCabe’s cast is mostly first rate and the English accents are maintained well, with dialect coaching by Carrie Hardin. Williams’ expressive eyes and face add to her charm as Sorel; she’s a native of Cheshire, England. Shanahan also adds a natural comic style to his portrayal of Simon and Wilford is an amiable smiling guest. Mencotti as Clara clearly was an audience favorite. 

Travis Shanahan as Simon, Melissa Brausch as Jackie and Betsy Pennington Taylor as Judith.

The drawing room of the Bliss home gets a realistic scenic design by Ray Toler. I liked seeing the vintage sheet music and faux-vintage theater posters used as décor. Costumes are by Rachel S, Parent, who uses an attractive mix of newly sewn and vintage gowns for the women. Hazel Marie Flowers-McCabe is stage manager. 

Noel Coward was considered one of the greatest British playwrights and performers of his generation. He was active in theater for more than 50 years and wrote more than 50 plays, including Blithe Spirit, produced by Eclectic Full Contact Theatre in June. Raven Theatre will stage Coward’s Private Lives this fall, thus providing Chicago audiences with a 2022 trilogy of Coward’s work. (I have not been able to find any explanation of the meaning of Coward’s Hay Fever title; if you do, please add it here in the comments.)

Hay Fever continues at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., through October 9. Running time is two hours including two brief intermissions. Tickets are $34 with discounts for seniors, students and military. Performances are Friday-Sunday with Monday performances on September 26 and October 3.  Proof of vaccination is required for entry and masks must be worn while you are in the building.

For more information on this and other productions, see https://www.theatreinchicago.com/.

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Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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