Hot on the heels of last week’s terrific production of The Book Club Play comes the second of two summer long alternating comedies from Actors Theatre of Phoenix. This past weekend saw the opening of Sandy Rustin Fleischer’s The Cottage, and while it may not be a better play than last week’s beginning of summer premiere, it’s actually funnier.
Playwright Rustin Fleischer has done something simple yet extremely effective. She’s created characters that would have worked in any Noel Coward comedy of British manners, such as Private Lives or Blithe Spirit, placed them in a single setting enacting a comic situation in real time, and let them loose, just to see what happens. Because of its style, it’s like seeing a show you feel you may have seen before, except that you haven’t. Nowhere is this clearer than in the second half when truths and realities are revealed in a way that makes the Coward inspired characters appear to take on the occasional elements of Alan Ayckbourn and even a cringe-inducing though laugh-out-loud moment worthy of the Carry On… team. It may sound like a mix bag, but it works. During its ninety minute running time – there’s not a second of padding – there are at least seven belly laughs, and that’s a huge success for any comedy of any style.
The plot revolves around the love affairs of the British upper middle-class, those who still tend to work for a living but can enjoy and indulge in the privileges of life not always available to those in situations lower than their own. Most comedies of the twenties and thirties from England revolved around these same types with BBC Home Service accents for the simple fact that no matter what class of society you were from – upper, middle, lower, working class – somehow you could still relate.
The setting is 1923 in a perfect English country cottage. It is morning and Sylvia (Maren Maclean, so good at this type of comedy) and her beau named Beau (the always funny Joseph Kremer) have just completed their once-a-year secret rendezvous after a night of hot passion away from their other halves, if you can actually imagine any Noel Coward inspired character acting with anything remotely close to hot passion. Meeting for a love affair just once a year may seem sparse, but as Sylvia so eloquently states, “We’re married so we thought it was best operated in a moderate capacity.” What a great line.
The problems begin once it’s revealed that Sylvia has sent out telegrams to all concerned stating that after all this time, the truth needs to be known. She loves her Beau and thinks its time to be with him. Once a year simply won’t do, by jove! In a move that seemed perfectly logical to Sylvia results with a gun (slightly loaded), a pregnant sister-in-law with a serious gaseous issue (Anglica Howland’s face pulling is priceless), identity changes, threats, and a drunken prostitute. “Perhaps telegrams weren’t a good idea after all,” Sylvia later laments. Plus, there’s even a phone call from an unseen character called Mrs. Worthington; a sly nod, no doubt, to the same Mrs. Worthington that Noel Coward once warned in song, “Don’t put your daughter on the stage… “
The Cottage is performed by the same cast, all six of them, that played together so well in last week’s The Book Club Play, and it’s a pleasure to be reunited. It’s like meeting up with a group of best friends you feel you sort of know. The way they’ve approached the play and its intentionally exaggerated style of delivery is to simply go out there and have fun, nothing more, nothing less, and as a consequence, so do we. Fun, when done well, is infectious.
Director Matthew Wiener’s skillful touch with farce is here on perfect display. Whereas with The Book Club Play he managed to keep the over-the-top mannerisms of his cast in check, here he allows them the freedom to go as far as they need. “I love it when you smoke,” declares Sylvia as Beau lights one up. “You look the picture of health!”
If you’re ever lucky enough to be on vacation overseas and you find yourself at an English seaside resort, there’s a good chance that if you walk along to the end of the pier stretching out into either the North Sea or maybe the English Channel, you’ll find a small theatre occupied by a local Amateur Dramatics Society – or Am Dram as it is affectionately known – with the chances that they’re probably presenting a play like The Cottage. It’s a summer tradition and one guaranteed to leave an audience perfectly satisfied. That’s how it felt when watching Actors Theatre, but there’s one exception; this cast of professionals do it better.
For more times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the Actors Theatre of Phoenix website.