Critics and theatergoers sometimes ponder the merits of old plays vs. new plays, well-worn and proven works vs. fresh and mysterious pieces whose endings we don’t know. Now and then, though, we get a production where that distinction holds no meaning, and that’s the case with Sandy Rustin’s scintillating new comedy in the style of Noël Coward.
A story of big personalities, well-earned laughs, and hidden connections revealed at dramatically opportune moments, The Cottage is fueled by witty dialogue, lots of humor, and an ending which at the end of Act I you can see coming like a train in a tunnel. Right from the start we know who’s the guiding force of the action, too.
Stephen K. Dobay’s spectacular set features hedge-crowded windows, bookshelves under the stairs, a brass umbrella stand, a boar’s head, green patterned wallpaper, a hexagonal transom window above an arched doorway, and a dollhouse of which, at the end, excellent use is made – everything screaming “English countryside cottage.” Draped luxuriously across a small couch is Sylvia (Amy Rutberg), creamy and deliciously dominant in blonde curls and a stunning green negligee. She’s here at the cottage for her once-a-year fling with Beau (the convincing Jason Loughlin), a neatly composed, tastefully randy lawyer who finds himself looking forward to ever more divorce-related paperwork as the evening’s action progresses in Aristotelean real time.
Three present or former couples, an absurdly tangled web of affairs, a dying materfamilias, an extremely pregnant sister-in-law, a slightly loaded gun, a changed identity, and plenty of tea and cigarettes infuse an unceasing flow of smart dialogue conveying a story that looks with irony at the uninformed past that was Coward’s present (“I love it when you smoke! You look the picture of health!”). All these elements spin up into a delightful farce impressively true to the tradition it co-opts. With a fine cast, convincing English accents (mostly), crisp direction by Adam Dannheisser, and clever period and faux-period music, the play and the production touch just about all the bases.
One missing element is any sense of a relationship between Sylvia and her husband Clarke (Kevin Isola), a relatively underwritten part. The script doesn’t convey any sense of that marriage, in contrast with the other relationships all of which feel more or less meaty and substantial. The play is breezy fun but built on a foundation of artful character studies, and when one vector that seems like it ought to be there isn’t, it’s noticeable. Fortunately, the fun is so unbroken that I didn’t feel the missing element until the very end, precisely when the couple in question said goodbye.
This thoroughly enjoyable farce, the first mainstage production of the Astoria Performing Arts Center’s 13th season, runs through Nov. 23 in APAC’s comfortable theater space in the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church (no hard pews here!) in Astoria, Queens, a short subway ride from Manhattan. For schedule and tickets visit APAC’s website.