There’s a fizz that bubbles up near the end of a door-slamming farce when the characters, one by one, have to explain to one another what’s actually going on. Well, you see, I was having an affair with your husband, the colonel, but I thought he was a chimney sweep, and look, here he is now, stuck in the fireplace — that sort of thing. It’s fun to watch someone untangle a mess and return things to order in the same way that it’s fun to watch someone solve a Rubik’s cube or clean a room on TikTok. The more convoluted the machinations, the better the payoff.
The Cottage tries to emphasize the fizz, but nobody remembered to shake the soda can beforehand. It’s full of explanations, light on mess. The play, by Sandy Rustin, whose adaptation of Clue is regularly produced around the country, is a riff on Noël Coward, and it’s full of characters who are a little too aware of the genre they happen to inhabit. Things kick off with Sylvia (Laura Bell Bundy) and Beau (Eric McCormack) in the afterglow of a tryst at the titular country cottage, both speaking in their best Downton-era upper-class British trill. She’s married to his brother, but after a sex-filled weekend, she has decided to throw away her marriage, telegram both their spouses, and announce that she and Beau are really meant to be, no matter how much it upsets their lives. The telegrams lead to the arrival of Sylvia’s husband (and Beau’s brother), the tweedy fop Clarke (Alex Moffat, playing him a little Biden-esque), as well as Beau’s very pregnant wife, Marjorie (Lilli Cooper), both of whom have secrets of their own. Soon, the cottage is stuffed to the brim as people just keep knocking on that big front door, including a ditzy young woman named Dierdre (Dana Steingold) and a more menacing man named Richard (Nehal Joshi).
Rustin tries to up the ante as each new character arrives a little more batty than the last, but instead of building tension, the plot feels like one extended denouement, gently diverting but never challenging. It’s not un-fun to guess at how everyone is related, but you’ll never be wrong in your first assumptions. It’s an enjoyable unraveling instead, and it needs the melancholy that tends to ground the actual Coward’s flights of chaos or Oscar Wilde’s hyperdense, your smartest-meanest-friend-ranting-on-Adderall mania. Even in the second act when Rustin introduces the potential for an Agatha Christie–style murder plot, there’s little real menace. Nothing here will surprise, let alone maim, anyone.
As if trying to keep air pumping into a plot that tends toward deflation, director Jason Alexander — yes, of Seinfeld and Merrily — has encouraged the actors to make their performances as big as possible. Bundy, back on Broadway for the first time since Legally Blonde (frankly, it’s rude that we let this much time pass), looks inches away from belting out any given punch line. She wrenches every laugh she can out of the script, coming up with seemingly endless variations of ways to fall back in shock on the ornate upholstery of the sets by Paul Tate dePoo III. McCormack, the show’s putative straight man, amps up a Jeeves-and-Wooster huffiness to try to keep up with her. Moffat will do whatever it takes for a laugh, whether it’s goofy dancing or elaborate swishing of his elaborately coiffed period forelock. Steingold, with a dazed stare and an intentionally slippery accent, ping-pongs between animated and sedated. Only Cooper tends not to overplay her bits, which pays off when she does go nuclear and launches into an immense fart joke that nearly brings down the house.
The overlarge performances come along with the meta-self-consciousness of Rustin’s script, and that’s a problem. She specifies, for example, that the characters are always finding and lighting cigarettes with random objects. It’s funny when a miniature version of Michelangelo’s David, for instance, emits a flame from its penis, but the more you comment on the genre from the outside, the more unstable the thing itself becomes. That’s a good premise for something like an SNL sketch, where you can burn through a comedic game and wrap things up in a matter of minutes. Over the course of an evening, the characters’ continual wink-and-nudge reminders of the goofiness of their world make it harder to maintain investment. Either the jokes need to sharpen and pile up into high absurdity (as in something like Noises Off or The Play That Goes Wrong), or the characters need to seem more flesh and bone.
The most interesting thread of The Cottage involves Rustin’s trying to work against the knee-jerk sexism of the genre as Sylvia slowly discovers that her happiness shouldn’t depend on the men around her. Fittingly for the 1920s setting, Rustin even weaves in a few references to the women’s-suffrage movement. But because the characters, for the sake of the comedy, have already become so abstract, Rustin’s points remain abstract too. As is true of so much in the play, you can see the turn coming as soon as Rustin starts laying out hints about it. Sylvia’s burgeoning consciousness arrives just in time to help usher in a tidy resolution of the plot, one in which almost everything (marriages, rediscovered romances, property ownership) gets sorted out. Like a lot of The Cottage, it all fits together pleasantly and too neatly. You’d think, or hope, that upending the status quo would involve a bit more mess.