Cygnet takes Noel Coward’s ‘Hay Fever’ and ‘The Vortex’ for a spin

Twice the drama, twice the laughs as Cygnet pairs Noel Coward plays in rotating repertory

Cygnet Theatre continues its tradition of hows performed in repertory with Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever,” directed by associate artistic director Rob Lutfy, and “The Vortex” directed by artistic director Sean Murray.

“The two plays are very different,” Lutfy said. “ ‘Hay Fever’ is very much a comedy and ‘The Vortex’ is a drama. Pairing them together works well on several elements; the actors who perform in both plays get paid more, it helps the theater, and subscribers get to see two shows sooner than normal.”

Lutfy said he finds it exciting to watch the same actors play different parts on similar sets, and the designers set two very different moods.

“For me and Sean, it’s also a challenge directing two different shows on the same stage during the same run. It’s problem-solving and artistic compromises and putting the pieces together.”

“Hay Fever” revolves around the eccentric Bliss family. Each member invites a guest for the weekend not knowing the others did, too. The guests end up leaving the house, and the Bliss family doesn’t realize they’ve all left.

“ ‘Hay Fever’ is part farce and part comedy of manners,” Lutfy said. “It’s set in the 1920s in the English countryside. Coward (1899-1973) wrote the play off his experiences in America with actress Laurette Taylor. It was scandalous for its time, but a moneymaker for a drawing-room high comedy. Coward talked about relying on good material for high comedy, which means it’s about the language, the wit.”

Murray has set “The Vortex” in 1968. It focuses on sexual vanity and drug abuse among the upper classes. The play was Coward’s first commercial success.

Lutfy pointed out that “The Vortex” was close to being shut down by the censors of the day, due to its “flagrant drug use, homosexuality and loose morals.”

“Coward wasn’t going to say he was gay, but he implied it in the play. Actress Elaine Stritch was a good friend to him, and she said he was the saddest man she ever knew, so with ‘The Vortex,’ we’re seeing that side of him. He had to be in the closet nearly his entire life because at that time it was illegal to be a homosexual.”

The casts consist of Rosina Reynolds, Charles Evans Jr., Rhona Gold, AJ Jones, James Saba, Richard Greatham, Lauren King Thompson, Jackie Coryton, Rachael VanWormer, Jill Van Velzer, Myra Arundel, and Paul Eggington.

“It’s a real challenge for them to go from a ridiculous comedy to a relentless, touching drama,” Lutfy said. “One is larger than the other and the styles are very different. In ‘Hay Fever,’ I like the scene where all the guests show up and fight about who gets what room to sleep in. One is sent to the Japanese room — the most beautiful in the house — and, of course, she doesn’t like it. All the guests, who don’t quite fit together, play this really silly game. They create lots of laughs.

“The bottom line for both plays is amorality versus morality, what’s socially acceptable with a rebellious class … also note, they are both kind of naughty plays.”

If you go: Cygnet Theatre Company’s “Hay Fever” and “The Vortex,” runs Sept. 23-Nov. 8 on Old Town Stage, 4040 Twiggs St., San Diego. Tickets from $34. (619) 337-1525.