‘The Cottage’ Broadway Review: Jason Alexander Directs Eric McCormack in a Most Foul Comedy

Sandy Rustin’s new play begins to smell bad even before one character breaks wind for two minutes, maybe three

Laura Bell Bundy and Eric McCormack in "The Cottage" (Credit: Joan Marcus)
Laura Bell Bundy and Eric McCormack in "The Cottage" (Credit: Joan Marcus)

Sometimes a bio in the Playbill is an apt warning for what you’re about to see.  For instance, the Playbill for the new comedy “The Cottage” includes a bio of the playwright Sandy Rustin. It reads, “Her adaptation of the film ‘Clue’ is one of the most-produced plays in the U.S.” Yes, there is a world of lousy theater beyond New York City, and “The Cottage,” which opened Monday on Broadway at the Hayes Theatre, is destined for it.

Sitting through this forced, unfunny take on British sex comedies of yore, I was reminded of an equally inept exercise in pandering to the tourist trade before that particular play was also run out of town.  In 2002, Broadway saw the unlikely opening of Michele Lowe’s “The Smell of the Kill,” a comedy about three women who plot to murder their husbands. A producer of the show told me that they expected the New York critics to hate “Smell,” which they did, but that the play would “clean up in the sticks.”

Who knows? Maybe “The Smell of the Kill” played all those regional theaters before “Clue” came along to wow audiences out there. “Smell” has one big advantage over Rustin’s latest stage effort. At only 80 minutes, “Smell” is much shorter than the two-hour, two-act “Cottage.”

And if the playwright’s bio in Playbill isn’t warning enough, there is the painted tableau, by scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo III, that greets theatergoers as they enter the Hayes Theatre. It depicts a rather grand English cottage surrounded by a lush garden in which two deer are screwing. On closer inspection, two little squirrels are doing the same thing on a path leading to the doorway. The year is 1923 and Sylvia (Laura Bell Bundy) and Beau (Eric McCormack) are having an illicit affair. As it turns out, so are their respective spouses, Marjorie (Lilli Cooper) and Clarke (Alex Moffat) — with each other! As if this weren’t manic enough, Beau and Clarke are brothers and Marjorie is pregnant with a child that appears big enough to take over for Nessie up in Scotland.

At one point, it appears Marjorie is going to give birth to that child right there on stage. Fortunately, we’re spared that spectacle and, instead, Marjorie merely passes gas for two or three minutes. The excellent sound design is by Justin Ellington. Despite all the flatulence assigned her, Cooper manages to give the production’s one understated performance.

Dana Steingold, Nehal Joshi and Tony Roach round out the cast, playing characters that only add confusion to an already complicated plot.

Jason Alexander directs everyone but Cooper to be as shrill as possible. While he’s expert at staging someone breaking wind, his direction found itself sabotaged at the performance I attended when the penis on the miniature statue of Michelangelo’s David refused to function properly as a cigarette lighter.