Applauding the set, clapping when an actor enters the stage, and the obligatory standing ovation are among my biggest pet peeves on Broadway, but they all seem perfectly understandable when it comes to “The Cottage,” Sandy Rustin’s decidely crowd-pleasing faux-English drawing room comedy, now debuting at the Helen Hayes Theatre under Jason Alexander’s steady-as-she goes direction.
Even at its considerable best, the show is little more than a summertime distraction, but without its luxurious casting and ultra-polished design, “The Cottage” would seem like little more than a summer stock import or a decades-long-overdue transfer from the English stage.
To begin, Paul Tate dePoo III’s re-creation of an English countryside “cottage” is a marvel look to at, designed in incredibly intricate detail and chockablock with a entire flea market’s worth of period-era props (many of which turn out to have more than decorative uses). You immediately understand why the show’s characters describe it as their favorite place on earth – and why, ultimately, the question of who owns it is both a symbolic and practical one.
As for that entrance applause, we are immediately greeted by the sight of a preening yet slightly awkward Laura Bell Bundy, returning to Broadway for the first time in 15 years since “Legally Blonde.” Dressed in a fetching white negligee (the fine costumes are by Sydney Maresca), Bundy is essaying the role of the unhappily married Sylvie.
While she initially seems like a “dumb blonde,” Sylvie proves, much like Elle Woods, to be the smartest and perhaps kindest person on the stage. Further, without even one song to sing, Bundy still finds musicality in every aspect of her performance, from hand gestures and pratfalls to commands and queries.
Make no mistake, though, Sylvie is hardly a paragon of virtue, as we quickly learn that the man she’s sleeping with (only once a year) is actually her brother-in-law, Beau (well portrayed by a virile-looking Eric McCormack –who has also been absent from the Main Stem for over a decade – as a chap with a strong exterior, weak interior and the morals of a circus flea). Moreover, Sylvie turns out to be an ahead-of-her-time feminist – a concept Rustin occasionally sledgehammers home amidst the show’s slapstick milieu but which also adds some needed dimension.
Oddly, if you’re looking for someone to really root for here, you’re not going to do better than Sylvie, as everyone has at least a secret or two that’s all too easily – and quickly -- revealed, from Beau’s very pregnant, snobbish wife Marjorie (a nicely imperious Lilli Cooper) to Sylvie’s buffoonish husband—and Beau’s brother -- Clarke (“SNL” star Alex Moffat in an occasionally over-the-top, but often hysterical turn), to the initially mysterious visitors Deirdre (played by the delightful Dana Steingold as a living Kewpie doll) and her supposedly murderous husband Richard (an endearing Nehal Joshi), all of whose pasts are even more complicated than their presents.
Like some of these guests, though “The Cottage” overstays its welcome, even at a brisk two hours (with intermission). Rustin, an actress-turned playwright, unquestionably knows how to write a great physical or verbal gag, but she also seems so excited by her own “cleverness” that too many plot twists unravel long before they should. And, with one “possible” exception, the play ends predictably once all the cards are on the proverbial table.
Still, “The Cottage” is a house that comes with a stacked deck of comic thespians who deserve the on-your-feet appreciation they get nightly.
By Brian Scott Lipton
Visit the Site
Laura Bell Bundy, Lilli Cooper, Nehal Joshi, Eric McCormack, Alex Moffat, Dana Steingold
Helen Hayes Theatre
240 West 44th Street
New York, NY 10036