The Cottage Broadway Review. No Noël Coward, but Jason Alexander directs.

I laughed at the very first of the many silly sight gags in “The Cottage,” as performed by the delightful Laura Bell Bundy, and was surprised and amused by the initial twist in this twisty tale of adulterous affairs, as revealed by the dashing Eric McCormack. I certainly found the show deliciously designed, its gorgeous costumes by Sydney Maresca, its clever, cluttered, majestic interior by someone with the somehow fitting name of Paul Tate dePoo III. All in all, I might have been won over by former “Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander’s Broadway directorial debut —  had the production been 70 minutes long, tops. But long before the curtain call, not even the terrifically appealing cast nor the much-welcome air conditioning could dissuade me from seeing this ersatz 1920s British comedy of manners as a tedious two-hour exercise in comic overkill.

Written about a decade ago by Sandy Rustin, “The Cottage” begins one morning in 1923 in the English countryside with Sylvia (Bundy) flouncing about in a white silk negligee, trying out sexy poses on the chaise-longue with which to greet Beau (McCormack), who’s off-stage taking a shower.  When he finally emerges, we learn in fairly rapid succession that Sylvia and Beau have just had a wild night of passionate sex; that they’ve engaged in sexual congress just once a year for the past seven years; and that they are each married to other people. As it turns out, Sylvia is married to Beau’s brother, Clarke.

 And then we learn that Sylvia has sent a telegram both to her husband Clarke and to Beau’s wife Marjorie, declaring her love for Beau and requesting divorces.

There is a knock on the door; it is Marjorie (Lilli Cooper), who is eight months pregnant. A short scene later, there is another knock; it is Clarke (Alex Moffat, a Saturday Night Live performer making his Broadway debut.)  Their reaction is unexpected: Marjorie and Clarke find news of their spouses’ affair “convenient” and “a relief” because they too have been having an affair with each other, and not just once a year; every night.  “In fact, Beau, darling,” Marjorie says, “well, I suppose considering your news it will come as a comfort to you now: This child is not yours.”

Further complications ensue, some of them involving another cheating couple, Deirdre (Dana Steingold) and Richard (Nehal Joshi), whose real name turns out to be William. But I’m not going to describe any more of the plot, which becomes increasingly incoherent; nonsensical even on its own ludicrous terms — and, to my taste, more and more tiresome.

Some of the humor in “The Cottage” is rooted in British reserve in the face of catastrophe: Rather than confront the latest startling revelation, a character will offer to make tea. But much of what’s funniest in “The Cottage” is not about the underdeveloped characters nor the ill-considered plot, but the props. Every few moments, a character uses another weird cigarette holder and lighter hidden throughout the cottage; one is a miniature reproduction of Michelangelo’s David, with the lighter its penis.

I at first felt that the low brow gags – the cigarette holders; the physical clowning, especially Moffat’s aberrant acrobatics; a very long fart joke at Cooper’s expense — were undermining the pseudo-sophisticated drollery. But ultimately I thought the exact opposite, since it was hard not to laugh at some of the silly gags, while the playwright’s efforts at imitating Noël Coward’s sexually-tinged worldliness and Oscar Wilde’s subversive illogic failed to include the essential ingredient of both – their wit.

The entire cast  gamely wrings what laughs it can from the script, but only Sylvia is given anywhere near a credible arc. It leads to a Deus ex machina, with a feminist twist. Like much that works in “The Cottage,” though, it is abruptly undermined.

The Cottage
Hayes Theater through October 29
Running time: Two hours, including a 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $58 – $215
 Written by Sandy Rustin. Directed by Jason Alexander. Scenic design by Paul Tate dePoo III. Costume design by Sydney Maresca . Lighting design by Jiyoun Chang. Sound design by Justin Ellington . Wig, hair, and makeup design by Tommy Kurzman . Production properties supervisor Matthew Frew. Dialect coach Jerome Butler. Associate director Jennifer Werner. Fight director Thomas Schall.
Cast: Eric McCormack, Laura Bell Bundy, Lilli Cooper, Nehal Joshi, Alex Moffat, Dana Steingold, and Tony Roach.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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