Noël Coward's 1925 classic Hay Fever is a trifling, delightful play about nothing. Set in the home of the Bliss family, a wealthy clan of Bohemian do-nothings rusticating in the English countryside, it revolves around romantic intrigues invented by the Blisses for their own idle amusement. It takes a remarkable cast and production crew to bring the family to life in all their over-the-top foppery while maintaining a glimmer of sympathy from the audience, and the Gate Theatre of Dublin has pulled it off on the Dock Street stage.
The premise of the play is that the four Blisses — father and novelist David, mother and retired theater diva Judith, and self-indulgent adult children Simon and Sorel — have each invited a guest to the house for the weekend, unbeknownst to the others. Clashes of personality and unexplained grudges arise instantly upon the guests' arrival, and the first act ends with the guests sitting in the living room in uncomfortable silence. In the second act, if two people are left in the room together, it is safe to assume that they will begin a romantic tryst.
Sorel, played by a perfectly manic Rebecca O'Mara, delivers one of the key lines of the play as a wholly appropriate throwaway spoken to the overwhelmed house guest Sandy Tyrell: "None of us ever mean anything." It is, as they say, a deeply superficial play, and the technical crew members are the first stars of the show. Costume designer Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh wraps the cast in decadent '20s cocktail dresses, smoking jackets, and tuxedos, replete with sequins, headbands, and intricately inlaid cigarette cases. Perhaps her crowning achievement in the play is Sorel (played by Rebecca O'Mara), who faints across the stage in a constant state of dishabille with her dress straps ever slinking down her shoulders, her hair ever disarrayed, and her makeup just wrong enough to make her look borderline insane.
The first and most dazzling characterization of the Blisses is designer Michael Pavelka's set, a fascinatingly disheveled living room for which the family never apologizes. It is all plush divans and velvet throw blankets with a hundred tiny eccentricities. At stage right, an unabashedly phallic oil painting of a banana between two peaches shocks flapper houseguest Jackie Coryton almost to tears the moment she steps into the house. At stage left, a stone bust of some unnamed gentleman draped in a lei and topped with a dunce cap. A tiny Buddha on the grand piano. A prosthetic arm propped up on an easel. There are wonders to behold, carefully curated and tucked away in corners.
Oh, and the cast: The actors playing the Blisses pull off a tricky balance, churning out the melodrama when things get heated but reining it in just enough to hint at moments of familial tenderness. Tadhg Murphy, as Simon, bounces like a posh Tigger and falls in love like a lush. And the houseguests bring a mix of wonder and disgust to the proceedings, like reality TV fans forced to spend a weekend with the Kardashians.
The strongest performance of the evening comes from the most understated actor. In his role as the dapper visitor Richard Greatham, Mark O'Halloran is the master of the squeamish grin. His is the only character with manners in a comedy of manners, and he carries it off with grace and style to spare.
The one question left unanswered by the end of the evening is why the Gate Theatre chose to bring Hay Fever to the Spoleto Festival in 2012. The play centers on the problems wealthy people invent for themselves when they have no real problems — a strange thing to consider in the wake of a recession. If director Patrick Mason means to stir up class resentment in audience members' bellies, he occasionally succeeds.
But if, as seems more likely, he simply wanted to spin a lighthearted yarn, he succeeds unequivocally. The Blisses live up to their namesake, and anyone who can keep up with the snappy dialogue will leave the theater feeling like the winner of a silly parlor game in the family's living room.