By: Samuel L. Leiter
July 29, 2023: Sandy Rustin (Clue, a popular stage adaptation of the board game and cult film) is the American author of Broadway’sfaux British sex farce, The Cottage, as cheesy as it is cheeky. Said to have been inspired by Noël Coward, the play—at the Helen Hayes—has oodles of smokes, booze, posh accents, and “darlings,” but there’s about as much Coward in The Cottage as there’s penetration in frottage. Instead, under the pedal to the metal, shtick-shift direction of “Seinfeld” favorite Jason Alexander (making his Broadway directorial bow), whatever feeble attempts at Cowardly epigrams and wit might be present are sacrificed on the altar of cartoonish characters portrayed with all the subtlety of Monty Python on poppers.
There are farcical moments in Coward’s comedies, but I doubt he’d have thought himself a farceur. His characters usually inclined toward three dimensions, not the two represented by each of Rustin’s people. Thus, the highly gifted cast is forced to mug, shout, and physically cavort in a breathless manner seemingly devised to demonstrate, with diminishing returns, that they’re much funnier than their material.
British sex farces have a considerable history, none more successful, probably, than No Sex Please, We’re British (1971), which defied the critics and ran 16 years. However, with its focus on a daisy chain of adulterous affairs, and the mix-ups thereunto pertaining, The Cottage, even without scenes set in a love hotel,owes a lot more to the kind of bedroom naughtiness and confused identities of the French stage, particularly the philandering farces of Labiche and Feydeau.
By comparison, the so-called Aldwych farces, England’s most popular during the 1920s, when The Cottage takes place, were relatively staid, as were the Whitehall farces of the 1940s and 1950s, steering clear of the kind of adulterous whirlpools swirling around in Rustin’s play. A play like The Cottage, with such things as women in their scanties, open avowal of extramarital sex, and a character who unabashedly confesses to being a prostitute,would never have been approved in the British 20s, roaring or not. The Cottage, with its self-consciously arch performances, is perfectly aware it’s not to be taken seriously, either as a pastiche of a certain style of British comedy or as a revisionist view of early 20th-century morality. All it wants is to get its laughs.
It must be admitted that, while this reviewer occasionally snickered under his breath several times, and laughed audibly twice or thrice, the rest of the audience seemed to be roaring quite regularly. Still, when the laugh that actually brings a play reportedly indebted to Noël Coward to a screeching halt until the ticket buyers can breathe again is ignited by a pregnant woman’s lengthy, well-orchestrated fart, it’s only fair to wonder what the Master might have thought of it.
Paul Tate dePoo III, a designer perfectly named for this play, has created, in the good old-fashioned manner, a charming cottage in the English countryside, including a beautifully painted drop curtain depicting its foliage-embraced exterior, and (as per the murals seen during the opening credits of “The White Lotus,” season 2) hints of the hanky-panky going on inside. Bric-a-brac, hunting trophies, portraits, and artwork abound, the set even contributing to the show’s sight gag obsession by providing surprising places for the stashing of cigarettes or liquor, not to mention a variety of unexpected lighters. You can imagine the audience’s eruption when the penis on a small replica of Michelangelo’s David is used to light a cigarette. (Even more uproarious was the reaction when David’s organ accidentally fell off and the actors had to improvise with the tiny fellow.)
Interestingly for a sex farce, there are only three ways for entering and exiting, a door to the place at our left, a staircase to upstairs at center, and a room at our right into the house proper. There is, as well, a window seat for hiding in. Except briefly, hiding from one another is not a major concern for these characters, who are surprisingly open about their peccadillos.
Over the course of the play’s two hours we meet six nuptially compromised principals, beginning with the forthright, glamorous blonde, Sylvia (Laura Bell Bundy, Legally Blonde), who is having her one-night a year affair with the debonair Beau (Eric McCormack, “Will and Grace”). Sylvia’s husband is Beau’s brother, Clarke (Alex Moffat, “Saturday Night Live”), the tweedy, veddy British, heavily mustachioed, stiff upper-lipper. Clarke shows up with his mistress, Beau’s wife, the reserved, imperious Marjorie (Lillie Cooper, POTUS), her pregnant belly large enough to dock a battleship. To put the icing on the complications, Rustin introduces Beau’s other paramour, the diminutive firecracker Dierdre (Dana Steingold, Beetlejuice), whose upper-class accent fades to Cockney when her real background is revealed, as well as her own husband, Richard (Nehal Joshi), who first appears, elongated pistol in hand, in a ridiculous disguise. There’s no need to describe the complex intra-couple imbroglios that embroil the three couples and their lovers, other than to say they provide fodder for lots of verbal and physical shenanigans designed to squeeze as many yocks a minute as the rapidly moving traffic will bear. From the very start, though, it’s all so overblown, and the characters so exaggerated that, apart from a few meaningful zingers, mainly from Sylvia, an incipient feminist, no one captures that basic sense of humanity that would give substance to the laughs they provoke.
Thanks to dePoo’s set, Jiyoun Chang’s lighting, Tommy Kurzman’s wigs and makeup, and Sydney Maresca’s first-rate flapper-period costumes, The Cottage is always attractive to gaze at. Justin Ellington’s period-based sound design is a definite improvement over his recent work with Orpheus Descending. With one exception, the company satisfactorily carries off the exaggeratedly British accents, and all—particularly the agile Alex Moffat—are skilled at the physical demands drawn from Alexander’s comic gag-bag, which often makes the show seem a cross between The Play That Goes Wrong and a spoof from Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. If only it were as funny as either one of those.
The Cottage **1/2
Helen Hayes Theater
240 W. 44th Street, NYC
Through October 29, 2023
Photography: Joan Marcus