N.Y. / REGION | ARTS | NORTHPORT
By AILEEN JACOBSON AUG. 8, 2015
“The Cottage,” a saucy farce about infidelity set in 1923 England, was written — contrary to any expectations that description might conjure — very recently by Sandy Rustin, a young American playwright who lives in Maplewood, N.J. Compounding its lack of British pedigree, the play was first produced at the Astoria Performing Arts Center in 2013 before spawning regional productions in Colorado, Massachusetts and Arizona. In 2014, the Astoria production enjoyed another run in the borough where it had its world premiere, this time at Queens Theater in the Park.
The play was “inspired by the works of Noël Coward,” according to the website of the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport, where the comedy is now running, complete with onstage tea sipping and the frequent tossing around of words like “darling” and “fetching” in plummy BBC accents.
By all rights, “The Cottage” should have been a cutesy one-joke gimmick. But this laugh-out-loud bit of fluff manages to maintain a bubbly mood throughout increasingly absurd plot twists. Nearly all the elements, including mannered acting styles, are intentionally exaggerated. After all, it’s not easy sending up Coward classics like “Private Lives” and “Blithe Spirit,” which are themselves sendups of romantic comedies. B T McNicholl, the director, working with the associate director, Jennifer Werner, has done an impressive job of finely calibrating the production’s tongue-in-cheek tone so that it’s emphatic but not shrill.
As the play begins, Sylvia (a 1,000-watt Rachel Pickup), wearing a slinky negligee ensemble, is practicing alluring poses with which to greet the man with whom she has just spent the night. When Beau (Henry Clarke, more reserved) appears, they agree they’ve had “wild sex.” They’ve been doing it once a year for the past seven years, since both are married to others. This time, though, Sylvia wants to make it more permanent and has sent telegrams to his wife, Marjorie (a droll Christiane Noll), and her husband, Clarke (Jamie LaVerdiere), revealing their affair and their location.
The spouses show up, of course, and are joined later by two other characters, an effervescent younger woman named Dierdre (Lilly Tobin) and her former husband, Richard (Brian Sgambati). All the actors do justice to their roles.
To reveal more about the plot would be a disservice. The play’s humor relies heavily on surprises, which are comedic even when you see them coming. A pregnancy, a gun, a disguise and a prolonged episode of flatulence figure in the action. British upper-crust manners are also a target, as characters most likely in distress still politely comment on the “lovely cottage” and Beau’s “smart robe.” Strangely, the house in which they meet, designed by Jonathan Collins, is wood paneled and looks more like a lodge than a country cottage. However, Tristan Raines’s costumes and other design aspects are spot on.
Not that there is anything wrong with a play that is a bauble, but this one could benefit from a bit more serious underpinning, perhaps addressing more fully (but subtly) the Coward quotation printed in the program, which says that it is “discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”
The play’s mocking approach, by the way, owes as much to Oscar Wilde as to Noël Coward. (Indeed, hanging on a wall is a portrait that supposedly shows Beau’s deceased mother but is actually a somewhat altered photograph of Brian Bedford playing Lady Bracknell in Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” on Broadway.) Bringing the total running time to 90 minutes by omitting the intermission might be another improvement. But really, for an airy night out on a summer eve, “The Cottage” is fine as is.
“The Cottage” continues through Sept. 6 at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport, 250 Main Street. Information: engemantheater.com or 631-261-2900.