While preparing for his role in Noel Coward's Hay Fever at the Guthrie Theater, actor Simon Jones would sometimes think of a framed letter he has at home from the famed writer to playwright Roderick Cook. "The letter says, 'I don't have to tell you this, Roddie, but don't try to be funny on top of funny material.' That's something we have to bear in mind."
Jones, who has worked previously at the Guthrie in The Home Place and as C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands, is probably best known for his turn in Brideshead Revisited and as the original Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
In Hay Fever, he plays David Bliss, the patriarch of an eccentric English family. Each of the four members, unbeknownst to the others, has invited a guest for the weekend. What follows could be the worst weekend in the country in the history of the world. (Coward reportedly
wrote the play after suffering through a weekend like the one portrayed in the play.)
Pulling this off means a lot of hard work for the actors. Getting the lines exactly correct is vital. The performers need "the desire to respect the author's intention. There are certain lines where we interrupt each other. We have to make sure those are precise," Jones says.
Director Chris Luscombe also sees that as vital. "Coward does a lot of the work for us. There is such a recognizable style, but people want to watch real flesh and blood characters. That's the challenge. The cast is exceptionally talented and skilled, and they didn't find it easy, but they rose to the challenge."
The playwright also has "a particular mindset. He has such a sophisticated intelligence and a sharp-witted-view of the world that is not dissimilar to Wilde. It's a distillation of Wilde's wit in a way, with a much more throw-away style than the previous generation's overwrought, Victorian style of speaking," Luscombe says.
"Chris and I went to the orchestra the other day. When they play a bum note, it sticks in your eye -- they didn't play any, I hasten to say -- and that's the same for Coward," Jones adds.
Luscombe has made Coward a vital part of his career. The English director's first work was Star Quality, Coward's final, previously unfinished work. The chance to direct Hay Fever at the Guthrie -- his United States debut -- was more than enough to bring Luscombe to the Twin Cities.
The staging has provided some interesting challenges. Hay Fever is presented on the thrust. "It makes it feel a bit unconventional, like we are doing a new play. Because it is set in a house in the country, it feels like the audience is in the garden or in the house with the family and the guests," he says.
There is also the matter of the cast and accents. Two of the actors -- Jones and Barbara Bryne -- are from the British Isles. The rest are area acting veterans. "English rhythms aren't always American rhythms. The two English people have helped to ground it. They have given the actors a reference point."
Jones, who has made his home in New York City for a number of years, finds his past continues to catch up with him. In fact, there will be a Hitchhiker's reunion tour this summer in the United Kingdom. It will find the actor returning a role he created 35 years ago as a pilot for a possible radio show on the BBC.
Since then, Douglas Adams's work has turned into "a book for the ages. He was our Lewis Carroll. And I'm his Alice."
IF YOU GO:
Guthrie Theater 818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
Previews through Thursday, opens Friday through April 22
For information, call 612.377.2224 or visit online