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Theater Review (NYC): Weekend at an English Country Estate – Icing on a Favorite Cake

The song that playwright Sara Montgomery metaphorically sings in her Weekend at an English Country Estate is a familiar one.  The play is a drawing room comedy reminiscent of Noël Coward’s Hay Fever or Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story; and while the song may be familiar, it is pitch perfect, proving that sometimes a cover version can be a joy too.

Noël Coward and The Philadelphia Story—not bad comparisons for a playwright’s first fully-produced work.

The characters that wander in and gather at the aforementioned English Country Estate may seem standard: the divorced Lord Hightower (Jacques Roy) and Lady Hightower (Elizabeth Neptune) visit their Great House with their children, dysfunctional no doubt from all that inbreeding going on within the British upper class.

One daughter, Evelyn (Alyssa Lott), is quite bookish, and, in the kind of social jibe that keeps Weekend contemporary and off the dusty shelf, is not allowed to call her mother and father Mum or Dad because they prefer to be her friends, not parents.

Another daughter, Athena, is not domesticated. We might even call her feral, in fact; the character seems to have wandered in from the vividly satirical imagination of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. Athena is played with great physical comedy by the playwright herself; it is a physical performance because, with a delightful irony, Athena is mute, stricken by an unfortunate Pomeranian incident long ago. The playwright who has no words is just the kind of subtle joke that elevates Weekend beyond the average farce.

We also have the Lord and Lady’s Significant Others: Veronica (Madeleine Maby) and Charles (Charlie Wilson), beautiful young things who have an agenda toward remarriage and its money. Love and lust are in the air as surely as the scent of the beautifully maintained English country garden.

Veronica has a hanger-on, Damon of the hooded eyes (Joe Stipek,) who is the morose foil to all the champagne-induced exuberance around him, and just in case the playwright hasn’t poked fun at artistic ambitions enough, let’s make him a poet because poets are such an easy target for laughs, and rightfully so, because Damon rhymes Veronica with harmonica.

To accentuate the Upstairs, Downstairs motif, there is Maddox, the communist butler (Mick Lauer), and Mary, the wise Irish maid (Julia Moss), who are the comic Greek chorus, commenting on the melee around them.

Sara Montgomery acknowledges her debt to Coward and to P.G. Wodehouse as well; she doesn’t mention The Importance of Being Earnest, perhaps to be modest. It may be unseemly to reference the greatest drawing room comedy of all time, but I will bring it up as one of the reasons why the casting seemed so natural—two of the actors here, Jacques Roy and Madeleine Maby, had been in last year’s very fresh and funny Earnest at the Counting Squares Theatre. They, along with Elizabeth Neptune who seemed to be channeling all the best comic timing of Bette Davis, brought the comic tension between the old-timey, as Montgomery calls it, and the absurd, and this is where laughter comes in.

And speaking of laughter, I hadn’t heard that much laughter in the theatre in a long time; granted I have just finished up a stint as a juror for an Irish Theatre festival, Irish theatre, generally speaking, being a bit on the serious side, but from the very first line, when Mary opens with “I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight,” the audience was obviously delighted. From the first line to the standing ovation, Weekend at an English Country Estate was endearing entertainment. We even laughed when a silver strappy sandal thrown dramatically across the room took an unexpected bounce and sailed uncomfortably close to our seats. If the shoe hits, laugh at it.

The Ateh Theatre Group presents Weekend at an English Country Estate, directed by Paul Urcioli, playing at the Access Theatre through October 31st.

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