Featherbed of False Emotions 

Hay Fever is so bad it plays like experimental theater.

"I don't altogether blame her; we're rather slapdash," says young Simon Bliss of his sister's frustration with their squabbling, bohemian family in Noel Coward's 1925 comedy Hay Fever. It's a witty line. It's also unfortunately a too-apt description of the production mounted by the San Leandro Players in their city's main library. From the moment the curtains part to reveal a back wall composed of what appears to be black plastic garbage bags, to the final bows, this strenuously unfunny show hits virtually none of its marks.

It's not for lack of trying -- the nine-member cast is trying too hard, if anything. While Coward certainly envisioned the anarchic Bliss family as witty, madcap folk, that's no reason to have the cast deliver their lines so fast that one wonders if they're trying to get the matinee over with so they can get out and enjoy the last of the sun. Coward tossed off Hay Fever in three days; perhaps director Josh Loar was striving for that same sort of manic delivery. As the first act opens, Simon and his sister Sorel barrel through the set-up: this is the family country house, every member has invited a romantic guest for the weekend without consulting with the others, nobody is expected to like anybody else, and the artistic Blisses are very poorly socialized.

The Blisses must be at least nominally attractive. How else would they have lured such a variety of guests -- a diplomat, an amateur boxer, an aging sexpot, and a dimwitted cowgirl -- to spend the weekend? Yet there's no sign of that attractiveness here -- the Blisses range from arch to pouty to cloyingly dramatic with few stops in between. Coward wrote these characters as beastly, yet charming; in this production these folks are all beast and no charm. When the guests do finally show up, all they can do is react to the Blisses and plot a panicked escape. One guest, the vampish Myra, does get in a good line that speaks for both her character and this show: "This house is a featherbed of false emotions!" she shrieks. "Every time I've opened my mouth I've been mowed down by theatrical effects!"

The devil's in the details, and here the details are clumsy: the kisses, the fighting, even the way the actors fake lighting their multitudinous cigarettes (hint: put the shielding hand between cigarette and audience and take a beat for it to light). The set design, which tries to strike a balance between Coward's comfortably overstuffed main hall and the narrow crescent of the lecture hall's stage, ends up surreal, cluttered, and seemingly dangerous to the actors, requiring Clara the maid to constantly haul chairs on and off stage.

That this is amateur theater is no excuse for its ineffectiveness. Most of these actors have trained and worked in the theater, some professionally. Yet there's no apparent attempt either to build up or reduce intensity, they don't seem to be listening to or reacting to each other, and they tromp all over each other's lines. Even if, as Myra asserts, the Blisses "haven't got one sincere or genuine feeling among the lot," that's no reason for the actors to play the characters so superficially. Similarly, being underfunded is not an excuse. Other companies have done more with less when it comes to designing a set that evokes place and time without relying on furniture the actors have to climb over -- or behind which they are accidentally lost to view. Finally, being off the beaten track is no excuse. San Leandro's California Conservatory Theatre is doing a fine job less than half a mile away. This show is so overacted, ill-conceived, and poorly directed that "slapdash" barely begins to cover it.

How enthusiastic people can deliver something so far from what the playwright intended is a mystery. It's sad to watch folks who clearly love theater produce something that falls so painfully short.


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