ASPEN, COLORADO--To say a play is "dated" is to confine it to the dustbin of history and simultaneously to leech the story of any contemporary meaning.
In a movie, being dated is an irrevocable curse that can arrive with the wrong soundtrack or a cellphone as big as a shoebox. Books tumble into the remainder bin once their myopic glimpse of the zeitgeist has passed transparently into history. The same with plays: the great ones are of their time but also timeless: the wonderful paradox that keeps on giving across decades and even centuries.
Great art--the kind that ipso facto never gets old--can be had across mediums and time zones with an expiration date stamped "eternity" by a higher power alone.
The plays of Noel Coward are a fascinating case in point, and "The Cottage," a comedy written by Sandy Rustin--here at Theatre Aspen through August 16--is both a sendup and update of the Coward oeuvre. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters in a comedy is the answer to the question: "Is it funny?" I'm happy to say the depiction of English upper crust in "The Cottage," directed by Don Stephenson, gets funnier and funnier as you go, full of bravura performances and worthy of multiple bravos and bravas.
That's no easy trick. In 2002, I had a chance to see an acclaimed British production of Coward's "Private Lives" on Broadway starring Alan Rickman, not only a bona fide movie star but also a terrific actor. (Need I mention his scene-stealing star turn as the bad guy in "Die Hard," or his recurring role in the "Harry Potter" series?) Those questioning Rickman's comedic gifts need look no further than his alien character in "Galaxy Quest," the funniest character in the funniest space comedy ever.
Noel Coward and Alan Rickman should have been can't-miss. But "Private Lives" laid an omelet on the great white way by simply not being funny. Coward plus Rickman equaled tedium that could only be cured by fresh air and the final curtain.
In contrast, "The Cottage" starts to boil and then explodes with hilarity with the arrival of Mark Price as Clarke, who brings the magical habit of yelling his lines in a way that is relentlessly comic. He is in good company with his brother Beau, played by Spencer Plachy: he delivers a finely calibrated straight-man performance that brings the play to the promised land of comedy, where every quip and prank ups the ante. Michael Kostroff arrives with a gun and perfect comedic timing, while Bailey Frankenburg (Deidre) and Michele Ragusa (Marjorie) turn clichéd characters into human fodder that never misses a chance for a laugh.
For me, the real revelation in the cast was Nancy Anderson as the mistress/wife of the two brothers. In the opening moments of "The Cottage," played with Plachy, the timing was spot-on but her Sylvia was a cardboard cutout of a mindless bimbo--funny enough, but missing that extra pinch of reality. But when Anderson gets to play a women scorned, her talent is given full-range: she is at times coy, cuddly, bitter, biting, belligerent and everything in between.
The angrier she gets, the funnier "The Cottage" becomes. Noel Coward would be pleased by this Theatre Aspen production because it comes with no expiration date--and, darling, I can promise you he would be more than a little jealous.