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Check into ‘The Cottage’ for some oh so civilized laughter
By Kevin Zimmerman

In Sandy Rustin’s new play “The Cottage,” now at the Astoria Performing Arts Center, any doubt that we’re deep in Noël Coward territory simply vanishes after a very pregnant character is handed a scotch to sip while she enjoys long drags from her cigarette.

It is oh so civilized, and oh so very funny.

Rustin said she wanted to write a play that followed the rules and structure of a Coward comedy, but provided stronger roles for the women in the cast.

At last week’s world premiere, it’s clear Rustin more than accomplished her goal.

The play, set in the English countryside in 1923, concerns the various infidelities of three couples, Beau and his wife, Marjorie; Clarke and his wife, Sylvia; and Dierdre and her newly divorced ex-husband, Richard. For these six, love resembles a sort of game with winners and losers, but once the truth begins to unravel just who earns a check in their win column becomes a little more muddled. Beau and Clarke are brothers. Beau is having an affair with Sylvia and Dierdre. Clarke has been carrying on with Marjorie. And Richard, may or may not be a serial killer.

Got that? No matter.

As in the best of Coward, the setup is the least important component of the evening. What matters is the sparkling dialogue and witty give-and-take between the characters.

And as promised, Rustin provides Amy Rutberg as Sylvia, Maria Couch as Marjorie and Hanley Smith as Dierdre with the best and brightest lines in this breezy 90-minute production.

Rutberg walks away with the show as the young woman who wants to believe marriage equals happiness rather than just contentment, which is where she finds herself now.

The play opens as Sylvia and Beau, played in a sleazy yet charming way by Jason Loughlin, lounge in their silk robes sipping tea and discussing their future. Slowly, we learn this happy couple are in-laws and while Beau would be content to maintain the status quo, Sylvia wishes to move things along. She informs Beau that she sent telegrams to Clarke and Marjorie coming clean. Naturally, after she reveals this, there is the first round of knocking on the front door.

The arrival of Clarke, played by Kevin Isola, provides Rutberg with the opportunity to perform a bit of slapstick as she is shuttled off to the window seat and hidden. That doesn’t stop Rutberg from adding a few serious lines that, from her current locale, become utterly hysterical.

As Beau’s pregnant wife Marjorie, Couch possesses an acerbic wit and a levelheadedness that sees the current situation as a blessing because she is free to go off with Clarke, the one man, and actual father of her unborn child, whom she loves.

In one of Rustin’s few missteps, Couch becomes the butt of a sophomoric joke, which had the audience howling with shrieks of laughter. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find this bit of toilet humor in any of Coward’s work. Why go for the cheap laugh when everything up to now has been genuinely funny on a higher level?

Smith also sparkles in the role of the slightly dim-witted Dierdre, who on more than one occasion makes cogent arguments that belie her uneducated background. She also gets many of the best lines. At one point, when discussing her newly minted ex-husband Richard’s tendency to murder her former lovers, she balks at the term murderer.

“Murderer has such a negative connotation,” she says.

And as Richard, Daniel Bielinski brings a sweetness to the role of a man, who having long ago lost his one true love, is desperate to keep his wife even if she is just someone to stave off the loneliness.

“He seems quite gentlemanly for a killer,” one character says about Richard.

Director Adam Dannheisser maintains the necessary light touch throughout the show that keeps everything humming along. Stephen K. Dobay’s set perfectly captures the look and feel of an English cottage with books and knickknacks crammed into every available corner.

And for the most part, Rustin’s script pays respect to Coward’s work, but presents it from the female point of view, while she keeps it all light and bubbly.

Coward was once criticized for what some people said was squandering his talents on such fluff.

But he countered that the theater exists for people’s amusement and not to teach or reform them.

Rustin clearly brushed up on her Coward for this delightful farce.

Reach news editor Kevin Zimmerman at kzimmerman@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4541.

If you Go

“The Cottage”

Where: APAC Theater, Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, 30-44 Crescent St., Astoria

When: Through Nov. 23, Thursday and Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 2 pm and 8 pm

Cost: $18, $12/seniors and students

Contact: (718) 706-5750

Website: www.apacny.org

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