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Tucson Weekly Classic Coward

Plucky Little Quintessential Productions Pulls Off A Deft Comedy Of Manners.

By Dave Irwin

AUGUST 24, 1998:  QUINTESSENTIAL Productions gives Noel Coward's Hay Fever quite a go in its latest presentation. The 1920s British comedy highlights Coward's deft writing, and almost everything works under Brian Kearney's direction.

Coward had a formidable advantage as a playwright, with his long-standing experience in the theatre, starting as a popular child actor.

As a director himself, he understood better than most the rhythms of dialogue and the crucial role of timing in delivery. Although he dashed off Hay Fever over a three-day period in 1924, it has become one of his most enduring works, concisely and hilariously written.

Hay Fever is based on real-life soirées at the home of actress Laurette Taylor and her husband Hartley Manners, during Coward's first trip to America. The play is both a vapid comedy of post-Edwardian manners and a stinging send-up of the era's theatre world and its self-absorbed participants.

The plot is no more than a weekend at the Bliss family's country home. All four family members have invited a guest with whom they hope to become romantically involved, without informing the rest of the family, or most importantly, the maid (Kristen Q. Eggers). Wife Judith (Christina Walker), recently retired from the London stage, has invited a young boxer, Sandy Tyrell (Werner James). Her novelist husband David (Joe Kearns) has brought in flapper/bimbo Jackie Coryton (Jennifer Williams). Daughter Sorel (Sara Nixon-Kirschner) has lured diplomat Richard Greatham (Bob Spruance), while her brother (Tim Koch), has been taken in by Myra Arundel (Barbara Flanary), who secretly admires his father.

The difficulty of this type of parlor comedy, of course, is that there's virtually no action except entrances and exits. Coward holds our interest by creating a variety of pairings, allowing his characters to interact in different combinations. This places the burden of the play on the abilities of the actors to make their dialogues work. Timing isn't everything, it's the only thing.

Fortunately, Quintessential found itself with a longer rehearsal span when it had to cancel a July production of Coward's Private Lives. The unexpected opportunity to focus on this production seems to have paid off.

On opening night, Walker gave a perfect performance as the central character. Judith Bliss, we realize, is always acting. But Walker's clipped and overly dramatic delivery kept just enough in reserve so that when the family begins its ritual of spontaneously playing mother's favorite scenes in the living room, she could take it over the top and really overact while still holding the line at satire, rather than farce. Walker brought a likable charm and a consistent upper-crust accent to her character's giddy obliviousness.

Kearns and Spruance carried a skilled maturity in their respective roles of know-it-all father and timid compromiser. Likewise, Flanary gave her character depth as she moved between calculating older woman and shamelessly gushing fan. The interaction between Kearns and Flanary was especially well played.

In what may have been opening night jitters, however, Koch gave a frenetic pace to Simon, leaving little room for his character to go bonkers over Myra. In the first act, Nixon-Kirschner's voice often popped into affected falsetto, making her difficult to understand through her accent. By the third act, she settled into a deeper, more understandable register. Their deliveries as brother and sister were also slightly rushed, never stepping on lines, but also not allowing the subtle beats that make learned dialogue feel conversational. Otherwise, their performances were very supportive, as was Werner James. Least successful were Williams' constantly exaggerated facial expressions, which became distracting as they went beyond befuddled to seriously palsied.

Of special note was Eggers as the overworked and slightly daffy domestic. Coward, who himself knew how to overplay a minor role and take over a show, allows Clara limited stage time. Eggers' frowsy fluster contrasted perfectly with the overly genteel family and guests, and made you wish her part were larger.

Dialect coach Amy Lehmann did a fine job stratifying English class differences, from the aspiring Blisses to the urban coarseness of the flapper and boxer and finally Clara's pure Cockney.

One cautionary note regarding the theatre itself: It's small and not air-conditioned. Founded last fall, this is Quintessential's first summer in the desert, and they'll need to find better solutions.

Adding risers has only marginally improved visibility, and there was a steerage quality to how the house was packed. During both intermissions, virtually the entire audience rushed outside to cool off.

The ultimate tribute to the quality of this production was that they re-entered the theatre with equal enthusiasm, eager to watch the next act.

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