If you find over-the-top juvenile jokes about sex, adultery, flatulence, and over-indulgence in Scotch and cigarettes hilarious Broadway-quality fare, the raucous and vulgar new American comedy The Cottage might be the show for you. It certainly was for the woman sitting behind me, who was literally screaming at the top of her lungs with laughter every two seconds into my left ear (which is still ringing today).
Written by Sandy Rustin and directed by Tony Award winner Jason Alexander (best-known for his role in the TV sit-com Seinfeld) in his Broadway directorial debut, the show, set in 1923, in the eponymous family getaway in England’s bucolic Moreton-in-Marsh in The Cotswolds, was, per the press release, inspired by the writing of Noël Coward, but is completely lacking in his sophisticated wit and subtlety (and, I would imagine, has him rolling over in his grave at the mention of his name and the unrefined Americanization of his style).
From the moment you take your seat in the theater, you get a glimpse at the brand of humor to expect in this lowbrow sex farce. The stage curtain consists of a lush and colorful landscape depicting the cottage and its grounds, with a very large bra flung over a tree branch and squirrels and deer copulating in the front yard. When the curtain rises, it’s a lot more of the same inside, though the woodland creatures are replaced by humans and their multiple indiscretions, which have been exposed via telegram to their equally unfaithful spouses, setting off more salacious confessions, reactions, and egomaniacal musings about the nature of love and marriage, and, completely out of the blue, an unlikely and sudden embracement of feminism, in just under two hours.
The story revolves around Sylvia, who meets for a tryst with her lover Beau – her husband Clarke’s brother – once a year at the lavish countryside escape owned by the men’s ailing mother, seen only in a portrait above the fireplace mantel. When their respective spouses also show up after receiving her revealing messages (sent unbeknownst to Beau), they discover that his very pregnant wife Marjorie has been having a torrid (and frequent) affair with Clarke (the baby’s actual father). Then in comes Dierdre, Beau’s other lover (unbeknownst to Sylvia), who, as told by her husband Richard (actually her ex-husband, as of that morning), has been keeping the secret of her “circumstances” and he has, by her account, taken deadly revenge on her past paramours and has promised to do the same to Beau, much to the horror and endangerment of everyone there; well, not everyone. And then there’s the gardener . . .
Under the no-holds-barred direction of Alexander, a star-studded cast from the screen and stage (Laura Bell Bundy as Sylvia, Eric McCormack as Beau, Lilli Cooper as Marjorie, Alex Moffat as Clarke, Dana Steingold as Dierdre, Nehal Joshi as Richard, and Tony Roach as Oscar) fully embraces the self-centered, lying, and philandering characters – none of whom is particularly likable and all of whom are pretty much deserving of one another – delivering the mock English accents (dialect coaching by Jerome Butler), raunchy laughs, unrestrained physical comedy (including funny fight direction by Thomas Schall), and running sight gags (of cigarettes, lighters, matches, and liquor hidden everywhere) with madcap energy, expert timing, and scenery-chewing commitment. Oh, and though they’re at odds over their infidelities, they all share tea and drinks, along with the insults.
A lavish artistic design beautifully recreates the stylings of the era, with a richly decorated and furnished neo-Tudor interior (set by Paul Tate dePoo III, props by Matthew Frew) of high ceilings, stained- and leaded-glass windows, patterned wallpaper, a vintage gramophone and telephone, and the mother’s taxidermied dog-turned-table-base (seen alive and held in her portrait). Roaring ‘20s costumes by Sydney Maresca and hair, wigs, and make-up by Tommy Kurzman suit the particularities of the characters, including Sylvia’s oft-complimented lingerie and the laughably obvious disguise of another. Lighting by Jiyoun Chang shifts with the presence of perceived danger and the recurrent philosophical pronouncements by the least likely of the group, and Justin Ellington’s sound is of the essence in the overly extended burst of flatulence, again by the most unlikely of characters, which some people apparently find hilarious, not disgusting. For those who do, The Cottage might be just your cup of tea. For those who prefer the more refined approach of Coward, you might need some of that ubiquitous Scotch.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 55 minutes, including an intermission.
The Cottage plays through Sunday, October 29, 2023, at the Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $58-248, plus fees), call (212) 239-6200, or go online. Masks are not required but are recommended.