Acting on the fringes

When I die, let me come back as a guest in an English country home as depicted by Noel Coward or P.G. Wodehouse. Let there be plenty of potty English gentry about the place and calm, competent butlers named Jeeves or Jenkins to straighten out the inevitable romantic imbroglios. Let there be croquet, cucumber sandwiches, coquettish young females, fatuous young men in spats, punting on cool, tree-canopied rivers, kippers on toast for breakfast, dressing for dinner, and, of course, a generous supply of brandy and soda within easy arm's reach. Satisfy these modest requests, and I will consider myself amply recompensed for a mundane but morally irreproachable existence.

Of course, you don't actually have to pass on to enjoy these pleasures. You can always imbibe them vicariously by reading Wodehouse's The Code of the Woosters, or by attending a production of Coward's Hay Fever.

There's a sampling of the latter on tap at Theatre Too!, the underground space beneath the more genteel Theatre Three in The Quadrangle. It's being staged by Windmill Productions, one of the surprisingly numerous, small, struggling, independent companies around town that call no one theater home. (Others include the New Theatre Company, the 11th Street Theatre Project, and Gryphon Players.)

These are the local companies in greatest need of critical attention, as they often have trouble finding an audience. They also merit support because of their importance as a breeding ground for area talent.

Unfortunately, they will never enjoy popular success. Like the majority of local poets, musicians, and artists who are working on the fringes, they will find mainstream acceptance perpetually eludes them. This production illustrates why.

First, there is the choice of the play itself. Coward considered Hay Fever one of the funniest farces, and it is a drolly amusing comedy. The plot, concerning a Bohemian English family of means and their clashes with an assortment of less flamboyant British types, allows Coward to unsheathe his gin-dry wit while sending up conventional notions of family fidelity and sexual mores.

But who are the Coward fans of today? A few scattered Anglophiles and a smattering of blue-haired old ladies, that's who. And where do blue-haired old ladies go in Dallas when they want a spot of theater? To a touring Andrew Lloyd Webber spectacle at Fair Park or to the Dallas Theatre Center, that's where. So what are the odds that a small, underfunded Dallas theater company working in a murky, subterranean space will draw a healthy audience to an obscure Noel Coward comedy? Slimski and noneski, that's what.

A cannier choice for this space was a recently staged production of Sartre's No Exit. There, at least, you had the combination of a writer still relevant to the beret-wearing college crowd and a dingy, damn-the-production-values stage. It worked--and is one of the few small, independent local productions of which that can be said.

(Tilting at) Windmill(s) Productions has set up a self-imposed roadblock through its choice of material that only sparkling performances and direction could overcome. Here, as with most small local productions, the performances are decidedly mixed.

Adair Ahrens shines as Judith Bliss, matriarch of the off-kilter Bliss bunch, a sort of Addams Family of the tea-and-lawn-tennis set. Recently retired from the stage, she can't resist the pleasure of emoting, so she cooks up domestic melodramas the way some moms make brownies. Vain, cagey, coquettish, and always sympathetic, Ahrens has a merry time in this part, and her cheerful self-absorption constitutes the main pleasure of the play. It's hard to believe that Ahrens is the same actress who played the desiccated old crone in Theatre Three's production of Tobacco Road.

Also good is Sean Cordobes as Sandy Tyrell, one of those warm-hearted but mentally negligible young twits of good birth who inhabit much of 20th-century English comedy. He gets more laughs from one fatuously phrased "rrrrather!" than other cast members get from some of Coward's more polished bon mots. Though none of the actors' British accents approaches Meryl Streepish perfection, Cordobes enjoys the most success in capturing the attitude of a particular British type.

Close behind him is Penelope Taylor as a nose-in-the-air English deb. Smart and self-satisfied as only the English upper crust can be, she radiates calculation behind a savoir faire that obviously was inherited from her blue-blooded ancestors.

Andrew Wheeler and Ambre Lowe are somewhat less natural as brother and sister Bliss. The languid, born-to-the-manor mannerisms of the English upper classes do not come easily to American actors nurtured on egalitarian social norms and Sonic burgers. The ease and too-confident-to-care attitude that's second nature to some Brits gets distilled by Wheeler and Lowe into a series of facial tics and slouches. John Puddington as father Bliss signals his Britishness by exposing his foreteeth like Terry Thomas.

Hay Fever, while energetically directed by Dallas theater veteran Thurmond Moss, could use a fillip of some kind to make it really zing. An outdoor production with live musical accompaniment would be nice, or perhaps the actors could play this very English drawing-room comedy in alien masks, like creatures from the barroom scene in Star Wars.

At any rate, in addition to acute play selection, it will require some sort of grandstanding or revisionist thinking to persuade people to forsake their usual entertainment options for small, independent theater. Until then, casts whose members outnumber audience members will be the rule rather than the exception for local fringe theaters.

Hay Fever runs through June 16 at Theater Too! in The Quadrangle. Call 871-3300.


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