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Theatre in Review: The Cottage (Hayes Theatre)

Laura Bell Bundy, Erick McCormack. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Plays, like buildings, need solid foundations, the very thing The Cottage so obviously lacks. Playwright Sandy Rustin has concocted a farcical spoof of early twentieth-century British comedies, but she hasn't noticed that Noël Coward, Somerset Maugham, and Frederick Lonsdale had a deep understanding of the era's manners and morals and how they could be abrogated for fun and profit. The Cottage unfolds in a Cloud-Cuckoo Land where upper-middle-class characters run around drawing rooms in their underwear, solicitors' secretaries give away their employers' whereabouts to total strangers, and lavish country homes -- despite the title, this cottage could accommodate the cast of Downton Abbey -- apparently require the services of no servants whatsoever. It's a tasteless, anything-goes enterprise that, ruthlessly milking its often-coarse comic bits, gives artifice a bad name.

You may wonder if anyone was crying out for a satire of, say, Hay Fever or Aren't We All? The Cottage offers exactly that, with a determined wink and nudge. It's the kind of play in which, seconds after an offstage character has been discussed at length, the doorbell rings and there he or she is. Such appearances cause no end of trouble for Beau and Sylvia -- a terribly modern (for 1923) pair -- who, for the last seven years, have been enjoying an annual adulterous hookup, like the lovers in Bernard Slade's Same Time, Next Year. This time, however, Sylvia, eager to land Beau as a husband, has sent telegrams, admitting all, to their respective spouses. Cue the doorbell, and in comes Marjorie, Beau's rather blasé, if enormously pregnant, wife, and Clarke, Sylvia's clueless husband, who happens to be Beau's brother. As it happens, they have a few bombshells to drop, too, one of which throws into doubt the paternity of Marjorie's unborn child. By this point, everyone's good manners are strained to the breaking point.

Additional alarms and excursions are caused by the appearance of a flouncy young thing with a connection to Beau and her husband, a possible homicidal maniac seeking revenge and the return of his erring wife. It all takes considerable sorting out, requiring the titanically self-involved Sylvia to execute a psychological U-turn, ending up a self-actualized woman who, as per Virginia Woolf, only needs a room of her own and a little money to be happy. It's a feminist lecture buried inside what feels like the world's longest television comedy sketch.

Thus, virtually every prop onstage hides a cigarette lighter, including a miniature Michelangelo's David with a combustible penis. Each entrance is accompanied by a musical flourish and light cues. In soul-baring moments, characters cross to the mantle and turn on the radio -- did they have portable radios in 1923? -- the better to underline their speeches with sad music. Sylvia gets stuffed inside a window seat, only to be sprung a few seconds later. Beau grabs an incriminating bra and, breaking the fourth wall, shushes the audience. And whenever Rustin needs to clear the stage, she sends someone off to the kitchen to make tea -- allowing yet another opportunity for a dropped-china sound effect.

After a while, I began to fantasize that I was seeing Nothing On, the rattletrap comedy featured in Michael Frayn's Noises Off. (Despite its high-gloss production, The Cottage most closely resembles the low-brow works of Ray Cooney, author of Run for Your Wife and Whose Wife Is It, Anyway?) Still, a technically adept company, under the crack direction of Jason Alexander, delivers each of the script's wheezes with remarkable precision. Laura Bell Bundy, positioning herself on the divan, seductively dangling a bunch of grapes; launching into another emotional outburst; or executing a perfect spit take, is a fine Sylvia, even making halfway plausible the character's transition from man-hunter to acolyte of suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst. Eric McCormack displays a solid knack for farce as Beau, although the character's constant preening becomes tiresome. Alex Moffat seems a little bit lost as younger brother Clarke -- a character who barely seems to exist -- although he executes his physical comedy bits with skill. Dana Steingold is amusing as that sweet young thing with a scarlet past. Nehal Joshi brings surprising conviction (and a rare touch of real feeling) to the role of the gun-toting interloper, who turns out to be less than he appears. As Marjorie, Lilli Cooper delivers her lines with such acid bite that one longs to see her in an authentic period comedy; here she must take part in what may be the longest, loudest fart joke in the history of the American theatre.

Compensation can be found in the delightful scenic design of Paul Tate dePoo III, who, making his Broadway design debut, delivers a lavish, half-timbered interior packed with amusing details, including a riot of wallpaper patterns, plenty of imaginative bric-a-brac, and a portrait of Beau and Clarke's ailing mother, whose will, tucked inside a biscuit tin, will resolve the plot. Be sure to check out the gorgeous show curtain depicting the cottage's exterior; look closely and you'll see plenty of hidden gags, including members of the animal kingdom doing what comes naturally. Sydney Maresca's costumes include nattily tailored men's suits and a lovely sea-green ensemble for Bundy. If lighting designer Jiyoun Chang and sound designer Justin Ellington must participate in some of the production's hoariest gags, at least they do so efficiently.

Well, it's summer on Broadway, which, I guess, explains the reason for this bit of audience-baiting froth. But The Cottage would make its point much more strongly if it wasn't constantly trolling for easy laughs. Coward, et al wrote with discipline; Rustin settles much too easily. The difference shows, and, at times, it embarrasses. -- David Barbour

(3 August 2023)

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