‘The Cottage’ on Broadway needs renovation
The Daily Beast
July 24, 2023
Good farce relies on secrets being kept, and complications, lies, and absurdity being added to the mix until the center cannot hold. “The Cottage” on Broadway lacks much of this.
So much is an unintended puzzle in The Cottage (Hayes Theater, to Oct 29). The first head-scratcher is that the English cottage as imagined looks far too fancy to be a Cotswolds cottage in 1923. It looks quite suburban and bland-meets-grand, instead of a bucolic bolthole in Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire. Then, the New York Times reported that the playwright Sandy Rustin does not see this Broadway play as a farce, but this is what the play itself is advertised as—and that is the most proximate theatrical genre one could attach to it.
It also grafts a serious feminist message to its ending, which, while welcome for a play set in 1923 being produced in 2023, feels oddly forced and beamed in too obviously from modern times. This is all to say: this critic is not sure what The Cottage is. Sadly, it is not as funny as it thinks it is, or intends to be.
The Cottage, whose all-star cast is directed by Seinfeld alum Jason Alexander, aspires to combine the waspishness of Noël Coward and the set-ups of Michael Frayn. But the thing with good farce is that it needs to keep adding elements to a ticking bomb of revelations, so that the audience is on pins and needles to see everything blow up and be chaotically resolved—keenly watching for delicious mini-detonations before the big explosion.
Good farce relies on secrets being kept, lies and absurdity being added to those secrets, and the layering of complication upon complication until the center can no longer hold. The best contemporary Broadway example is One Man, Two Guvnors, featuring James Corden as the gurning, stressed aide to two crooks in Richard Bean’s Sixties-set farce—paced and simmered to comedic boiling point perfectly.
The most audacious, and ultimately undermining, aspect of The Cottage is that there is no deferral of secrets, and no long-awaited revelations. It is the least excruciating farce this critic has ever seen, when it is crying out for so much more excruciation.
As it opens, Beau (Eric McCormack) is having an affair with his brother’s wife Sylvia (Laura Bell Bundy). They think they are alone in their illicit idyll. But no, next his brother Clarke (SNL alum Alex Moffat, the standout performer in the show) turns up with Beau’s wife Marjorie (Lilli Cooper). They’ve been having an affair with each other too. Both sets of revelations are breezed through.
The comedy? It’s funny that cigarettes appear in the strangest places, lit with just as conveniently and surreally placed matches. Moffat throughout proves to be an adept and winning physical comedian, folding himself into the hiding place of a seat, wielding a broken golf club as an ineffectual weapon, and lighting a cigarette from the hilariously lewd hiding place of the groin of a male statue. (Sydney Maresca’s costumes are period-perfect—particularly for the men and Bundy.)
Then it turns out Beau has also been having an affair with Dierdre (Dana Steingold), whose relative youth conceals a wisdom about human relationships and motivation that surprises even her. The play flirts with seriousness—that Sylvia feels supplanted twice over, and so screwed over twice over. But then Dana reveals she has a psychotic ex, Richard (Nehal Joshi), who turns up at the end of act one—in a truly terrible piece of pacing and plotting which confuses the audience in ending awkwardly—and who turns out to be Sylvia’s presumed dead ex William, not so dead, and still in love with her. And no psycho he, Richard/William is really a sweetie pie with a not-very-loaded gun.
The Cottage summarizes these surprises as briskly as this review. It doesn’t delay or defer anything. Every set-up is immediately exposed and explained. The potential for comedy thus repeatedly deflates itself—its expression lying in people scurrying about to hide from Richard/William, under the misapprehension that he will kill them; in Moffat’s shining talent for physical comedy; and, if you like a good, basic raspberry-blowing fart gag, then Cooper’s heavily pregnant character will delight you.
McCormack is best not when he is playing stiff, but leaning into the pratfall hysteria he executed masterfully in the zanier moments of Will & Grace. Cooper can still any dissension, or indeed anything she takes umbrage with (usually someone she perceives as making a play for Clarke), with the hardest of glares.
None of the characters seem surprised, or that hurt, or that moved, by anything. That is part of The Cottage’s arch comedy. But this jaded over-it vibe just leaves them firing off verbal bullets or Coward-aspirant aperçus. If you like cut-glass English accents from another era, then all are well-executed here—truly, the American actors nail a solid RP, except at moments of high emotion—but the deeper sharpness and critique, the layered bitchiness that you associate with the cut-glass parrying in Coward or Downton Abbey, is absent. It’s just a lot of terribly British accents of a certain time, parroting aimlessly away. The actors do their best to keep animating a play that keeps stopping itself in its tracks.
Bundy becomes a feminism standard-bearer when she realizes—after scooping the cottage in the will of Beau and Clarke’s unseen and deceased mother—that not having a man is the best option for her. This independence elicits into the open air the desire for another kind of independence—from any romantic entanglement with men, given the three on stage have disappointed her.
This gets the “go-girl” round of applause as intended, but none of the three men in her life are that bad—more pathetic than terrible; they have paled next to her throughout the play. And while she may get to fuck the hunky gardener who suddenly appears at the end, the victory feels so-what, as she was never a loser who was that discriminated against, or treated poorly.
The Cottage is full of such baffling self-sabotages. For instance, when everyone bar Sylvia goes off to hide from Richard/William, they just stay hidden, leaving him and Sylvia to talk for a long time about nothing at all. Where is the sense of a house brimming with nerves and people concealed? Why does the comedy of The Cottage feel so listless? It seeks to make every shock un-shocking, every ridiculous plot twist accepted as quotidian. But with everything neutralized on sight, what space is left for genuine surprise and progression?
If you blow up all your secrets, and leave your characters nothing to reveal, what does that leave characters in a farce to do? There is no tension in The Cottage because it keeps explaining itself and all its silliness—immediately leaking all the silliness from the silliness.
That leaves its company of actors getting as many laughs as they can from being frightfully posh, clueless, or acting hammily—and in this, Cooper and Moffat have the deftest comedic range of motion; their very Jack-and Karen (again, for Will & Grace fans) pervy lust for one another, especially as they imagine their getting together around horses, is a consistent source of fun.
The Cottage is not a dud; its outbreaks of hilarity thankfully break up stretches of conversation about characters’ tangled pasts, and restatements of the comic setups in front of us. But, as wittily complicated as those summaries can sound, we’ve already got it. It’s been unpacked for us in the moment, over and over again. If The Cottage isn’t a farce, what is it? This critic couldn’t tell you, and—as presented—the production doesn’t seem to know the answer either.