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Family feud 

Soul-stice's Hay Fever fits screwball to scale

The Blisses of Noel Coward's Hay Fever are a big family. Not that there are many members -- just a mother, father, daughter and son -- but their bohemian eccentricities give them larger-than-life temperaments, and they must be played accordingly.

It can be a tricky thing to take comically over-the-top acting and match it to the size of the venue. The Alliance Theatre has a big stage, yet a couple of the performances in Light Up the Sky are broad enough to suit the Georgia Dome. Soul-stice Repertory, in contrast, puts on Hay Fever in the tiny backstage space of 7 Stages, yet the flamboyant, hilarious Blisses seem to fill every spare inch without overwhelming it.

Hay Fever has an appealingly straightforward premise: The Blisses discover that each has invited a guest for the same weekend to their country house, despite its limitations on space, food and servants. The four visitors all end up as foils to the family, who come across as a kooky clan worthy of the Sycamores of You Can't Take It With You or even the Addams Family.

Coward gives most of the spotlight to materfamilias and actress Judith Bliss (Donna Wright), who may have retired from the stage yet never tires of playing the diva and making semaphore-sized gestures. She'll delightedly declare, "I am beautiful and sad," or remark, "I don't flaunt about," while twitching her flowing scarf in her wake. When a younger stage siren (Wendy Melkonian, lethally poised) visits the household, it's a catfight waiting to happen.

It's unfortunate that husband David Bliss appears rarely in the first act, because Jeff McKerley makes him Judith's perfect match. A novelist of uncertain merit, he's possessed of wild mood swings, bellowing furiously at someone, then quietly complimenting them in the same breath. McKerley will often punctuate a pointed rejoinder with a saucy noise or a smarty-pants expression on his face, a style that should seem impossibly mannered, yet McKerley's intuition as to what's funny makes it perfectly appropriate.

Son Simon (Daniel May, amusingly unkempt), an artist in a charcoal-smeared tunic, seems to fancy himself a Byronic figure, prone to grand but inconstant gestures. As daughter Sorel, Lily Yancey is as quarrelsome as the rest, but doesn't quite have the same pixilated spark that infects the other players.

The audience quickly realizes that even when one of the Blisses is trying to seduce a guest, it's only to exasperate or make jealous one of their family members. Their only real audience is each other. In Act Two, each Bliss pitches woo at the invitee of another, and the guests, including a boxer (Johnell Easter), a "diplomatist" (David Harrell) and a flapper (Jill Hames), find their hosts' actions baffling and their parlor games indecipherable. "This house is a featherbed of false emotions!" one visitor exclaims.

With a squeaky cockney accent like the sound a cork makes being pulled from a bottle, Hames makes her airheaded young lady a zany creation in her own right, whether she's immodestly adjusting her hose and cleavage or doing a silent Charleston to herself. Arguably in Hay Fever a guest shouldn't be as silly as one of the family, but Hames' timing and talent ensure plenty of laughs.

Director Heidi Cline designed the diverting wardrobe of violent-colored, jazz-era wraps, turbans and smoking jackets, and keeps the action at a zany pitch without letting it spin out of control. Hay Fever ends on a nicely controlled, choreographed note as the Blisses argue pointlessly among themselves while the guests silently smuggle out their luggage and sneak away under their hosts' noses. The final moments reveal why Coward named them the way he did: When it comes to the feelings of others, the Blisses are ignorant.

Hay Fever plays in repertory through March 18 at the Backstage Theatre of 7 Stages, 1105 Euclid Avenue, with performances at 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sun. and 2 p.m. matinees on Sat. and Sun. $10-$15. 770-591-3036.

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