By Charles J. Morgan
Announcement to theatergoers everywhere — the English language is alive and well and ensconced on the boards of the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport. Standing like a rock in a sea of drivel, the theater’s latest play, “The Cottage” by Sandy Rustin, exhibits the nuances, the understatements, the acerbic humour, the articulate dialogue and even wisecracks to such a sophisticated, yet rapidly delivered, neatly interfaced lines that your scribe must confess he did not want the show to end.
Rustin sculpted her work mindful of the spirit of that arch-sophisticated Noel Coward. A sample of his penetrating wit appeared epigrammatically on the Playbill:
“It is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”
Directed by BT McNicholl, the play expresses the web of marital and unmarital involvement that it is interspersed with humour that comes at the audience like a spray from a Bren gun. Yes, it is high comedy delivered in a rare sense of hilarity. It was interesting to literally watch the audience slowly accommodate itself to the sophistication of it all. A graph of laughter would register from zero to 100, reaching a climactic 100.99 right down to the almost slapstick finale.
Since your scribe does not hold a critic’s duty to relate what a play is all about, suffice it to say that it involves two couples who have criss-crossed spouses. So if there is a denoument, these characters do their absolute best to untangle it. Rachel Pickup playes the lead, Sylvia Van Kipness. Tall, beautiful and statuesque, she appears in all of Act I in negligé and peignoir. Over and above it all she is a supreme actress with a stage presence that would make her outstanding if she wore a suit of armour.
Henry Clarke is Beau, her lover. He has all the masculine good looks of the Hollywood leading man, but he employs all his talents to remarkable effect. In one scene he daringly points a fireplace poker at a man aiming a rifle at him.
Sharply involved in the verbal interplay is Christiane Noll as Marjorie. Jamie LaVerdiere plays Clarke, Beau’s brother and husband to Marjorie who was once married to Beau. Then onstage comes Lilly Tobin, as Dierdre who is actually bounced all over the boards in Act II. Another spoiler is Brian Sgambati as Richard, the allegedly long-lost husband of Dierdre, but actually a deserter from the Royal Navy. Put them all together and you get a hilarious story that gets untangled … maybe.
The title reflects the set. It is the interior of an English cottage located 90 miles from London, possibly the Cotswolds. Set designer Jonathan Collins has outdone himself with this effort. It is tastefully decorated in what may be called English Rustic of 1923, the play’s time frame. Collins’ skills are outstanding.
The ribald essence of the show is an outcome of the vanished Victorian/Edwardian values that went up in smoke on the Somme, Gallipoli and Passchendaele. Hence the gaiety of the actors involved in marital disintegration. But let us not get somber over this. The show is humourous and not without a touch of satire.
If deadly serious matters can be put up for laughs, then prepare to split your sides … keeping in mind that the English language is alive and very well.
The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport, will present “The Cottage” through Sept. 6. Tickets are $59. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.