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Week of 25 April 2003· Vol. VI, No. 30

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Missed manners
A Plum production of Noel Coward’s hilarious Hay Fever

By Brian Fitzgerald

During a rehearsal of Hay Fever, guests of the Blisses, played by (left to right) Mehera Blum (CFA’03), Paul Cortez (CFA’03), Jane Bergeron (CFA’03), and Baron Vaughn (CFA’03), plot their escape from the family’s country estate. Photo by Michael Hamilton


During a rehearsal of Hay Fever, guests of the Blisses, played by (left to right) Mehera Blum (CFA’03), Paul Cortez (CFA’03), Jane Bergeron (CFA’03), and Baron Vaughn (CFA’03), plot their escape from the family’s country estate. Photo by Michael Hamilton


Move over — and out — Osbournes: the Bliss family is back.

With apologies to Ozzy and his clan on MTV, the Blisses were here first, the original wacky household of eccentrics to be embraced by the public. The Bliss folks in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, which will be performed by CFA’s school of theatre arts from April 30 to May 4 at the BU Theatre, “are the Osbournes of 1924,” says director Scott Edmiston, a CFA assistant professor.

The theatrical and offbeat Bliss family invites four straight-laced guests to their large English country home for a weekend in the play, described by critic John Lahr as a “comedy of bad manners.” The farce is considered by many to be the best comedy written by Coward (1899-1973), but “from a professional standpoint, Hay Fever is far and away one of the most difficult plays to perform that I have ever encountered,” Coward said in 1934.

Edmiston, who is also an artistic associate at the Huntington Theatre Company, Boston University’s resident theater company, agrees with Coward’s assessment that the play isn’t easy to pull off. “It’s technically demanding on the actors,” he says. “The play has very little plot, so the humor has to come out of the precision of the comic timing of the dialogue.”

Judith Bliss, a grand and glamorous actress, and David, her novelist husband, along with Simon and Sorel, their bohemian son and daughter, host four guests who are representative of traditional society, and the Blisses proceed to baffle them with their impulsiveness and conversational lack of restraint. “Manners are a kind of unspoken contract between the individual and society which allows them both to function efficiently,” writes Lahr. “Harmony, not honesty, is required for society. Manners demand an individual put a rein on his more selfish impulses in consideration for the feelings of others. The Blisses are constitutionally unable to do this.”

Simon Bliss blames his parents for his outrageous behavior. “It’s Father and Mother’s fault, really,” he says. “You see, they’re so vague. They’ve spent their lives cultivating their arts, and not devoting any time to ordinary conventions and manners and things. If people don’t like it, they can lump it.”

British comedy and Boston murder

Judith and David Bliss are played by professional guest artists Paula Plum (CFA’75) and Richard Snee. Plum, who has appeared in such movies as Malice and Mermaids, received the 2003 CFA Distinguished Alumni Award, along with the 2002 Independent Reviewers of New England Award for best actress, and the 1995 Eliot Norton Award for best actress. Anyone who’s seen Shear Madness might find Snee familiar — his appearances in this Boston comedy-murder mystery number 3,000.

The talented Plum “has helped set the style and the tone for the play,” Edmiston says. “She’s a charming comedienne, with a particular skill for British comedy. Also, a lot of BU cast members have spent a semester in London, so they have a sense of the British culture and the British sensibility. They have studied British comedy in classes, so it’s a chance to apply their classwork and their studies abroad to a production. In many ways, I believe, this will be a culmination of their work at Boston University.”

Hay Fever, written in three days when Coward was 24, “is about the modern era clashing with the stodginess of the Victorian era,” says Edmiston. “There’s something about it that reminds me of The Osbournes. The Blisses live in this gorgeous mansion, but they’re bohemian eccentrics. The play draws us in because we’re interested in that kind of story, of people who live in an unconventional way because they’re artists, and how they get though their daily lives. There’s something funny about watching the Osbournes in that glorious mansion, yelling at each other and running around in their rock and roll clothes. Hay Fever is kind of the 1924 version of that.”

That’s not to say that the Blisses are swearing like sailors throughout Hay Fever. No one at the BU Theatre has to man a “bleep” button. “It’s a play that spoofs bad manners, and now we live in a time of bad manners,” Edmiston says. “So what was considered shockingly bad manners in 1924 no longer seems so shocking. It’s a challenge for us, because the values of our time are so different. Hay Fever broke all the rules, but now that the rules have been so far broken, it’s tricky to go back in time.”

Edmiston says that the play is still hilarious today, however. “Rehearsals have been a lot of fun,” he says. “Rehearsing Hay Fever is like having a glass of champagne. It’s sparkling, witty, and effervescent.

Performances of Hay Fever will take place at the Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., on Wednesday, April 30, at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, May 1, at 7:30 p.m., Friday, May 2, and Saturday, May 3, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, May 4, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 for the general public, $8 for BU alumni, and $5 for Huntington Theatre Company subscribers and senior citizens. BU students, faculty, and staff receive one free ticket with BU ID at the door on the day of the performance, subject to availability. For more information, call the BU Theatre box office at 617-266-0800.


25 April 2003
Boston University
Office of University Relations