Alas, the door in “The Cottage,” a mild farce by Sandy Rustin, works only partway. It lets people enter, yet doesn’t trap them; they can leave at any time — and never do. Even when a killer is coming, the characters merely dawdle.
Dawdling is the play’s difficulty as well; everyone talks in pseudofancy circles. The stunts and capers likewise have no danger in them. And Jason Alexander’s trick-filled production, which opened on Monday at the Helen Hayes Theater, cannot hide that the stakes are too low.
For Beau (Eric McCormack) and his sister-in-law, Sylvia (Laura Bell Bundy), those stakes are close to nonexistent. Theirs is, after all, a once-a-year tryst. And since each is already cheating merrily on a spouse, the initial problem — Sylvia wants a bigger commitment, but Beau is overbooked — does not seem very problematic.
The interruptions that then arrive with the dulling punctuality of a track coach grasping a stopwatch do not much complicate matters. The first is Beau’s pragmatic wife, Marjorie (Lilli Cooper); the second is her foppish lover, Clarke (Alex Moffat). Because Clarke is Beau’s brother and Sylvia’s husband, the impact of his affair is nullified within minutes as the adulteries cancel each other out.
While you try to absorb the overneat crisscross symmetry of that setup, notice the cottage itself, a classic Cotswolds hideaway fully furnished with opportune dangers: a twisty staircase, a library ladder, a trapdoor window seat and alarming taxidermy. (The amusing set is by Paul Tate dePoo III.) With croony jazz (sound by Justin Ellington) and lovely Deco frocks (by Sydney Maresca) we are clearly in the 1920s. In a marcelled blond bob (by Tommy Kurzman), Sylvia looks simply smashing.
And yes, that’s how they talk. If the play is not exactly new — it has been making the rounds since 2013 — it wishes it were even older. Specifically, it places itself in the “Private Lives” era of Noël Coward, when brittle Brits in smoking jackets dropped bon mots along with their ashes. (The dozen hidden-cigarette jokes provided by the prop supervisor, Matthew Frew, are the funniest part of the show.) Also suggested are the identity confusions of “The Importance of Being Earnest” and the country-home sexcapades of “Nothing On,” nested within Michael Frayn’s glorious backstage farce “Noises Off.”
But to suggest something is not to achieve it, and though “The Cottage” operates like a farce it only rarely achieves a farce’s liftoff. That’s when the pressure on the characters becomes so intense that it initiates a kind of verbal and physical fission.
A few moments here hint at that possibility, as when Sylvia says, “So, you stuck a mustache on a mustache and changed your name to Richard?” — a line that is both perfectly logical in context and logic’s perfect opposite outside it. And Moffat’s extreme character choices, including postures that find him tied up in pretzels with his feet en pointe, nearly turn this “Saturday Night Live” clown’s performance into modern dance.
But these are squibs; they zoom up, pop briefly and fizzle. Despite the cast’s mostly elegant work — Bundy and the self-mocking McCormack consistently hit their marks — the script and what feels like Alexander’s desperation to keep things aloft inevitably let them down. I am not, for instance, aware of a scene in Coward involving 30 seconds of earsplitting flatulence. Nor do the stinger chords that announce each new character’s entrance inspire confidence in the production’s genre discipline.
“The Cottage” is therefore more of a spoof than a farce, and less a spoof of Coward or Wilde than of Feydeau, soap operas and middlebrow adultery comedies of the 1970s like “6 Rms Riv Vu” and “Same Time, Next Year.” More or less successfully, they all used humor to assuage the sexual anxieties of their times by showing how characters twisted into agonies of jealousy and desire might nevertheless come to a good end.
Rustin wants to do something similar by introducing three additional amatory complications, including Dierdre (Dana Steingold) and Richard (Nehal Joshi), about whom it would be unfair to say more. In different ways they lead Sylvia, who gradually becomes the center of the play, to reject the traditional assumptions that too often trap women in loveless marriages. Developing this feminist angle on Coward, Rustin name-checks the English suffragist leader Emmeline Pankhurst and draws on a surprise instance of intergenerational sisterhood to resolve the plot.
Though the misogyny of man-made social institutions (and plays) is not exactly news, I was glad of this development in theory, and impressed with Bundy’s ability to carry it off at the just-right midpoint between silly and serious. But after all the temporizing and flatulating earlier, the last-minute arrival of a point seemed, well, beside the point. Had I laughed more than twice in the play’s previous 119 minutes, I might even have found it funny.