Cygnet Theatre in Old Town has wrapped its annual two-shows-in-repertory project around Noel Coward, and that’s a security blanket. Ninety years after they were written, Coward’s Hay Fever and The Vortex remain quick-witted drawing-room theater. An appealing ensemble of nine performs in both productions.
Hay Fever is by far the more engaging and cohesive of the two. Rob Lutfy directs Coward’s blissfully wry comedy about the Bliss household and the bemused guests who join them for a weekend of eating, drinking, smoking, parlor games, flirtation and theater. That’s right, theater. Doyenne Judith Bliss (Rosina Reynolds) is an over-emotive stage actress on supposed hiatus, and it’s not surprising when every situation under the roof, with the guests or with her husband (Paul Egginton), son (Charles Evans, Jr.) and daughter (Rachel Vanwormer), becomes another opportunity for Judith to chew the scenery. The statuesque Reynolds is a sheer delight in so doing.
The first act, which serves to introduce all the characters and their quirks, takes its own good time, but once the full ensemble (also including Jill Van Velzer, Aj Jones, James Saba and Lauren King Thompson as the houseguests, and Rhona Gold as cranky housekeeper Clara) is onstage together, sparks and quips fly, with the double-takes as funny as the lines. This is a hay fever worth catching.
The Vortex, on the other hand, is a darker affair. This rarely produced play, directed here by Sean Murray, is less witty than classic Coward, and its underlying melodrama comes off more like dressed-up soap opera. The “wild” party scenes (in this adaptation updated from the ‘20s to the swingin’ ‘60s) with the cast dancing as if in some disco are rather shuddering, and antihero Nicky Lancaster’s (Evans) drug-induced tantrums don’t elicit much sympathy. Reynolds is nevertheless gorgeous and charismatic as Nicky’s vainglorious mother, Florence, and Van Velzer provides solid, and restrained, support as Flo’s best friend, Helen.
The sets for both shows, designed by Sean Fanning, and Peter Herman’s wigs and makeup contributions add to the festive atmosphere and charming trips back in time.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.