Although Sandy Rustin’s The Cottage, now arrived at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater, bills itself as “A Romantic and (Not Quite) Murderous Comedy of Manners,” it is devoid of the two requirements of drawing room comedy: wit and quotable one-liners. Its hard-working stable of stars including Eric McCormack, Laura Bell Bundy, Lilli Cooper and Alex Moffat, have been directed by television star Jason Alexander to behave as though the play is comic; however, there are hardly any laughs.
The play’s premise owes a great deal to Noel Coward’s Private Lives as well as Bernard Slade’s Same Time, Next Year without improving on either of those now classic comedies. Set in the English countryside 90 minutes from London in 1923, The Cottage begins with Sylvia (Bundy) and Beau (McCormack) waking up from their one night a year affair away from their spouses in the Victorian house owned by Beau’s mother. Sylvia is married to Beau’s brother Clarke (Moffat) who apparently is not very demonstrative, and Beau is married to Marjorie (Cooper) with whom we aren’t told how he feels. Thrilled to be away from her unemotional husband, Sylvia has been inspired the night before to send telegrams to both Clarke and Marjorie telling them of her plans to leave Clarke and marry Beau.
Both arrive at the cottage, the very pregnant Marjorie and the besotted Clarke, who have news of their own: they are in love, planning to get married, and Marjorie’s baby is actually Clarke’s. If that isn’t complication enough, in walks Dierdre (Dana Steingold), Beau’s regular lover, who has just gotten her divorce from her husband Richard in order to marry Beau who hadn’t planned to marry or divorce anyone. While they are all digesting these new revelations, Richard (Nehal Joshi) who Dierdre has revealed has murdered all of her previous lovers, knocks on the door which gets us to the first act curtain. However, it turns out that Richard has more than one secret which complicates everything still further.
While normally this sort of setup is arranged for scintillating dialogue and a great many clever lines to be delivered, here the characters talk mainly of how they feel and how surprised they are. While the acting is very perky and bright, it doesn’t register most of the time and the actors have to work pretty hard for their limited results. What passes for one liners periodically (“Delayed logic is consistently disappointing,” “The value in virginity is a patriarchal construct,” etc.) are so cerebral that they take too long to figure out. The best lines, all non sequiturs, go to Dierdre described as a “nincompoop” so that they seem wiser than she would be.
Most of the comedy comes from the props supervised by Matthew Frew: buried all over the set are cigarettes and lighters in the most unlikely places, cigarettes hidden in a flower pot, a lighter in the penis of a statue of David, a drawer of cigarettes directly under the mantel piece, etc. At one point Beau comes out with a stuffed porcupine as a weapon which gets a very big laugh. Paul Tate dePoo III’s elaborate Victorian mansion (furniture, nooks and crannies, lamps, stained glass, draperies, animal heads, art work, staircase) is most impressive visually but somewhat distracting dramatically. Although Sydney Maresca’s costumes are complimented by the characters repeatedly, they are rather on the bland side in muted colors.
While Sandy Rustin is best known for her stage adaptations of the films of Clue and Mystic Pizza and the concert adaptations of Dear World and I Married an Angel for New York City Center Encores!, it does not appear that drawing room comedy or farce is her forte with the plot stretched to its limit by the final curtain. The cast is pleasant to be around but the pace could be a bit quicker, giving us less time to think about the turns of events. Justin Ellington’s sound effects are excellent but Bundy is either miked badly or not enunciating as the ends of most of her sentences are garbled. A hit summer comedy would be a pleasure in this hot season in New York, but this does not fill the bill.
The Cottage (through October 29, 2023)
The Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.thecottagebroadway.com
Running time: two hours and five minutes with one intermission