Stanford stages good comedy of bad manners

Whether the Bliss family represents that state of minds depends entirely on whether one is an insider or outsider. That’s apparent in Noël Coward’s frothy comedy, “Hay Fever,” presented by Stanford Repertory Theater.

Perhaps a more appropriate name for the family might be the Bickersons because bickering seems to be the favorite sport of all four Blisses. Overdramatizing is another.

These sports come to light one weekend when, unknown to the rest of the family, each Bliss invites someone of the opposite sex to visit the family’s country home.

The bickering begins even before the first guest arrives as young adult siblings Sorel (Kiki Bagger) and Simon (Austin Caldwell) go at it. As the play continues, everyone get in on the act, especially their mother, Judith (Courtney Walsh), a retired actress who still delights in dramatic behavior. Their father, David (Bruce Carlton), a novelist, joins in.

Judith’s guest is young admirer Sandy Tyrell (Andre Amarotico). Simon has invited Myra Arundel (Deb Fink), who is older than he, while David has invited the much younger Jackie Coryton (Kathleen Kelso). Completing the list is Sore’s much older guest, Richard Greatham (Rush Rehm), a diplomat.

As each guest arrives, the family’s maid, Clara (Catherine Luedtke), merely opens the door and walks away, giving the guest a first taste of the bad manners that lie ahead. The guests then find themselves ignored or seduced. Each family member seems properly indignant about such indiscretions.

The play is loaded with some amusing scenes, such as proper Richard’s attempts at conversation with vacant Jackie and an after-dinner game involving behavior in the manner of a particular adverb.

For the most part, director Lynne Soffer’s cast does well with Coward’’s often subtle wit. Bagger and Caldwell as the Bliss siblings got the first act off to a rocky start on opening night with Bagger’s English accent difficult to understand. She improved after that, though.

At other times, various cast members didn’t wait for laughter to subside before their next lines. However, this was the first performance before an audience. The actors hadn’t had the advantage of a preview to refine their performances.

Nevertheless, the show delivered an ample share of laughs from both the over-the-top antics of the Bliss family, especially Walsh as Judith, and the guests’ increasing discomfort.

The production is enriched by Annie Dauber’s set, Connie Strayer’s elegant costumes, Michael Ramsaur’s lighting and Brigitte Wittmer’s sound.

In her program notes, director Soffer gives  “a tip o’ the hat to Nagle Jackson for his inspiration.” Jackson directed the hugely popular American Conservatory Theater production of “Hay Fever” in 1979 and 1980, when ACT had a resident company of actors.

Soffer told me at intermission that she was using a sight gag that had worked so well for ACT in the breakfast scene of Act 3.  It worked again in this Stanford production.

Running just over two hours with one intermission, “Hay Fever” is the centerpiece of SRT’s summer festival, “Noël Coward: Art, Style and Decadence.” It includes a cabaret show, “Cowardy Custard,” a revue of Coward’s songs. Also included are a film series and a community symposium.

“Hay Fever” runs through Aug. 9 in Stanford’s Pigott Theater, Memorial Auditorium (Memorial Way and Galvez). Tickets and information about the play and details about all of the summer festival events are available by visiting www.repertorytheater.Stanford.ed  or calling (650) 725-5838.