Like the armful of flowers she saunters in with from the garden at her first entrances, Rosemary Harris carries Noel Coward's 1925 comedy conceit with an airy grace that never once falters. And "Hay Fever," a wafer-thin play with nothing on its mind but the author's nimble jesting, demands no less. It is all style, and this very stylish production which opened under Brian Murray's deft direction last night at the Music Box, is a lark.
A weekend in the country is its sole concern. And, as hosted by the batty and resolutely self-centered Blisses, it turns out to be quite a weekend! Harris starts as Judith Bliss, a retired actress toying with a theatrical return just a year after her farewell appearance; Roy Dotrice is her husband, David, who secrets himself upstairs in his study much of the time; and they have two grown children - Sorel (Mia Dillon) and Simon (Robert Joy). And each member of this family has, without informing the others, invited a weekend guest up from London.
Each one of the maniacally susceptible Blisses falls madly in love with either Richard Greatham (Charles Kimbrough), a stuffy diplomat; Myra Arundel (Carolyn Seymour), a slender brunet sophisticate; Jackie Coryton (Deborah Rush), a pretty blond ninny; and Sandy Tyrell (Campbell Scott), a young man who enjoys punting.
So the guests' Saturday afternoon arrival in June establishes the confusion on the household; an after-dinner attempt at a word game compounds it; and it is disspated the next morning when the four slip unnoticed down the stairs while the self-absorbed Blisses, seated about the breakfast table, question David's reference to a Paris intersection as he tries to read aloud the final chapter of his latest potboiler.
Coward plays upon this one-stringed instrument with skill and resourcefulness. But without the divine Harris whose mannerisms - both vocal and physical - are alone an entire course in comedy acting and the sterling supporting cast, "Hay Fever" would disappear into the thin air it breathes. Dotrice is peppery fun as the father who immediately lays claim to Seymour after having heard no more than that she has enjoyed one of his books. Kimbrough is very funny as the diplomat Judith practically devours before forgetting about him. Mia Dillon gives an excellent performance as the spoiled daughter who has a brief kissing fling with the athletic young Scott. And Deborah Rush is delightful in her performance as the dimwitted girl who unexpectedly - and for only a mad moment - finds herself engaged to the irrepressible son Simon, set forth with giddy expertise by Joy.
The bright setting, with its print-covered chair and sofa and shawl-drapped piano is just right, as are the witty period costumes and the clear lighting. It's amazing how much the then-youthful playwright could spin out of practically nothing in "Hay Fever" - but then, isn't it a gift he possessed throughout his career?
Rosemary Harris is a joy forever. Her joyfulness is being spread like some heady scent at the Music Box, where last night Hay Fever, Noel Coward's lightly mordant comedy about the "beastly family," the Blisses, returned to New York in a always inventive and often stylish new staging by Brian Murray.
Hay Fever - am I being dim? I have never really understood the title - is not among Coward's best plays, although it is a stately vehicle for actors - especially the one in Miss Harris's regal role as Judith Bliss, a retired but never retiring, always play-acting actress.
Nowadays the play enjoys a special distinction as the work that really reclaimed Coward's reputation as a major 20th-century playwright when he himself, in 1964, staged a spectacularly brilliant version for Britain's National Theater, embossed with the likes of Edith Evans, Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi, Lynn Redgrave, and other jewels.
Since them, Hay Fever has assumed the patina of a classic - but it remains a thin patina, and a minor classic.
The idea is intriguing. the play - it is said by Coward and legend to have been written in three days - was inspired by the playwright's weekend visit to the household of an eccentric but great American actress, Laurette Taylor.
If it was anything like the occasion enshrined in Hay Fever with the Bliss family, it must have been some weekend.
Unfortunately the idea, thus intrugued, never amounts to anything, other than an exercise of style. We meet a frightful - although, to us, highly amusing - family at the beginning, and they are just as frightful and just as amusing at the end.
Miss Harris plays Judith, the high-strung histrionic wife of a novelist (Roy Dotrice) and mother of their two horrendous, and more or less grown-up children (Robert Joy and Mia Dillon).
This disatrous family has each - without informing one another - invited an unsuspecting and essentially unsuitable guest to weekend in their country house in Surrey.
They then contrive to insult their guests - when they are not flirting with them, and sometimes even then - from the moment of the Saturday arrival until the four quests (Charles Kimbrough, Deborah Rush, Campbell Scott and Carolyn Seymour), after tipping the unobliging but jovial maid (Barbara Bryne), flee back to town, leaving the family still squabbling over the Sunday breakfast.
The comedy of bad manners was a style curiously popular between the wars, but Coward invests it with a particular grace.
To be sure he actually used the play's ending to far more telling effect in the infinitely superior Private Lives, and even the insults to the out-crowd are more subtly conveyed in Design for Living. Yet in the right staging, with the right performance, Hay Fever can still be light, luminous, and charming.
Coward is expert at finding the truth beneath the ordinary; phrases slip away across the actors' tongues, yet so often it is what is not being said that is more important than what is. Coward was a master of what we would now call a sub-text.
ANd how can you quarrel with a man who calls someone "a self-conscious vampire," further characterizing her as a woman "who uses sex as a kind of shrimping net"?
Then how do you explain away the elegaic farce of a woman, imagining herself betrayed in a grand emotion, saying, with a straight but sad face; "I would like someone to play something very beautiful to me on the piano"?
The line may not sound much on paper, but listen to Miss Harris thrum it at the Music Box and you will get a lovely, instant insight into Coward's (and Miss Harris's) own insight into very soul of woman as the eternal actress.
It is Miss Harris's gift here to make graciousness graceful, and over-acting into a special branch of acting's art. She is quite wonderful, and worth the price of anyone's ticket.
The rest of the cast is less superbly right. The disappointment is Dotrice, who seems neither silly nor self-centered enough for the novelist husband, and even betrays a trace of undercutting embrassment in his delivery.
Miss Dillon and Mr. Joy are perhaps a shade too American for Cookham, Surrey, and Miss Seymour's vamp lacks some killer instinct.
Miss Bryne makes a capable, typically Cowardly domestic, and Kimbrough is a nicely calculated "diplomatist," while Miss Rush is endearing as the sensibly silly flapper in a flap the novelist has lured down from London.
At times Murray's staging is a little busy - his stint in Michael Frayn's Noises Off appears to have rubbed off on his comic style - but is, unlike Michael H. Yeargan's dull setting but more in accord with Jennifer von Mayrhauser's lively costumes, mostly on target.
Certainly director and actors combine most blithely together in the first-act curtain, making that Blissful tea-party the maddest since Alice's Mad Hatter's. It is here that Coward's family posing as "a featherbed of fake emotion" becomes chilingly real...and hilariously funny.
In the unlikely event that you stop laughing and start thinking at the sparkling new Broadway revival of ''Hay Fever,'' you may notice that Noel Coward's comedy has skin-deep characters, little plot, no emotional weight or redeeming social value and very few lines that sound funny out of context. All of which goes to show that some plays defy the laws of theatrical gravity. In this now 60-year-old jape, Coward demonstrates that pure fluff also rises: ''Hay Fever'' is a classic spun out of the thinnest and most dizzying of air.
Or so it seems when placed in the adoring hands of the dream Anglo-American cast that the director Brian Murray has assembled at the Music Box. No rendition of this play - or perhaps any play - can go seriously astray when the radiant Rosemary Harris is at center stage. But this production has so much talent to spare that actors of the lustrous caliber of Roy Dotrice and Barbara Bryne can be found in relatively minor roles. Simple as this evening's recipe may seem - sound script, thoroughly assured (though by no means ''all star'') cast, knowing director - it is not one frequently encountered on today's Broadway. Our commercial producers would do well to study the example of this ''Hay Fever,'' provided the public will spare them some seats.
Miss Harris, I probably needn't tell you, appears as Judith Bliss, an actress who purports to be retired from the theater but who still glides through life as if every small event were a cue for a big scene. Coward's comedy describes a weekend at the Bliss country home during which Judith, her novelist husband, David (Mr. Dotrice) and her grown children, Sorel and Simon (Mia Dillon and Robert Joy), each receives a separately invited guest. By Sunday morning, the visitors are fleeing the Bliss manse en masse, driven away by a family whose rudeness, bad manners and self-absorption know no bounds. ''You haven't one sincere or genuine feeling among the lot of you,'' says one scandalized reveler, the fading vamp Myra Arundel (Carolyn Seymour). The Blisses' response is clear enough: ''If people don't like it,'' says Simon, ''they must lump it.''
This egotistical attitude reflects the playwright's own. For Coward, the best defense against the humdrum bourgeois world was to defy conventional manners and follow his own wittily inverted, highly theatrical rules of behavior - to live as if all existence were artifice, a game, a play. ''Hay Fever'' is surely a major document in the history of the sensibility now known as camp. The Blisses are never so blissful as when they are striking extravagantly Bohemian poses that leave their beleaguered, terribly straight houseguests completely on the outside of their various in-jokes. Not without reason does the play reach one climax with an inspired sequence in which the family mocks its visitors by applying lines drawn from Judith's melodramatic stage vehicle, ''Love's Whirlwind,'' to actual domestic crises at hand.
No one plays these games better than Miss Harris, whose performance proves a tour de force from the moment she first enters from the garden in a big straw hat, tall boots and silken lady-of-the-manor costume. (The excellent costume designer is Jennifer von Mayrhauser.) As the vain Judith, Miss Harris is always willing to make a grand Gish-sister gesture by raising the back of her hand to her forehead; she also tends to descend the stairs with her arms gracefully undulating, just in case anyone on stage is inclined to reward what she calls her ''celebrated actress glamour'' with an impromptu ovation.
She certainly deserves one for a scene in which Judith startles a stiff diplomat (Charles Kimbrough) by acting as if his casual kiss were an invitation to a temptestuous affair -and then immediately switches to the role of an outraged Victorian mother who's caught her daughter necking. In the brilliant parlor game sequence of Act II, Miss Harris acts out the adverb ''winsomely'' in a manner that will forever change the meaning of that word; somewhat later, she cries nostalgically over the memory of her children in their perambulators until she's reminded that she never saw her children in their perambulators. Never one to suffer any defeat, Miss Harris checks the tears abruptly and sails blithely on.
While one hates to pick favorites among the supporting players, Deborah Rush again demonstrates that she is a born successor to Judy Holliday. Last seen on Broadway searching for her contact lenses in ''Noises Off,'' Miss Rush here plays an abjectly stupid, terminally nervous flapper who shrieks upon dropping a piece of silverware and who tends to send the most inconsequential sentences rising from a squeaky octave to an even shriller one. The scene in which she and the diplomat must conduct strained small talk about various Continental tourist spots is a model of comic timing. By the time it's over, the hilariously unnerved Mr. Kimbrough can be found clutching a prized cigarette case as if it were the last surviving remnant of civilization as he knows it.
Mr. Dotrice is all wry cynicism as the frequently ignored master of the house, and Mr. Joy and the foghorn-voiced Miss Dillon, though a shade mature, serve well as the jaded Bliss offspring. Miss Bryne's Cockney maid, with a puckered Hogarthian face and vinegary disposition to match, sets off convulsions merely by running around in frantic anticipation of dinner for eight. Campbell Scott, as a young swell fond of accenting the first syllables of ''rather'' and ''ripping,'' is just right, as is Miss Seymour as the guest bold enough to complain of the Blisses' penchant for mowing down others with ''theatrical effects.''
In his staging, Mr. Murray trusts the material sufficiently to avoid extraneous theatrical effects of his own. (As a real-life director, he's the antithesis of the heavy-handed fictional director he portrayed in ''Noises Off.'') While there are a few unexpected dividends - notably an amusing pastiche Coward song by John Kander and Fred Ebb - Mr. Murray scrupulously avoids parodying a work that is already an affront to reality. Formless as it may seem, there's a precise architecture to the topsy-turvy household that is ''Hay Fever.'' The smart people at the Music Box know that, and they offer us an evening of intoxicating escape.