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How the Old-Fashioned Comedy 'The Cottage' Manages to Be Funny and Feminist

By: Carey Purcell
Date: Jul 27, 2023

Tony nominees Laura Bell Bundy and Lilli Cooper on starring in Sandy Rustin's Broadway farce

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Sandy Rustin's high-spirited sex comedy The Cottage takes place exactly a century ago. But while Paul Tate dePoo III's elegant set and Sydney Maresca's Jazz Age costumes are period perfect, the vibe is decidedly contemporary. The stylish farce, which follows a sextet of intertwined lovers on one very chaotic morning in a Cotswolds hideaway, is quite progressive. In a sly wink to Hillary Clinton, our heroine Sylvia (Laura Bell Bundy) even affectionately calls an unconventional lady she admires a "nasty woman." However, when Rustin initially set out to pen an old-fashioned romp with strong roles for women, she didn't know how poignant it would end up being.

The Cottage opening at Broadway's Hayes Theater in 2023 may seem by design but Rustin set the show in 1923 because of what was happening with the women's rights movement in England during that period. The play actually premiered a decade ago at the Astoria Performing Arts Center in Queens. Numerous regional productions followed, as did rewrites.

The tone began to evolve "right around when Trump got elected," recalls Rustin, whose other shows include a stage adaptation of Clue and the book and lyrics for Rated P for Parenthood. "As a result, the rewrites for The Cottage over the last few years have found their way toward a stronger feminist point of view. I definitely think that the political climate of our country has shaped the revisions."

An affectionate spoof of Noël Coward and Oscar Wilde, The Cottage opens with Sylvia basking in the afterglow of a passionate night with Beau (Eric McCormack), the brother of her husband Clarke (Alex Moffat). She is so elated that, on a whim, she telegrams her spouse and Beau's wife Marjorie (Lilli Cooper) to divulge the affair. Soon, the cozy cottage is overrun with unruly romantics, including Beau's other mistress Dierdre (Dana Steingold) and her ex (Nehal Joshi). Jason Alexander directs the shenanigans, which include some uproarious physical bits, countless cigarettes and copious cups of tea.

For Bundy, returning to Broadway for the first time since her Tony-nominated turn in Legally Blonde, both the humor and the message of The Cottage feel timeless. "We know that this new sort of women's movement rose up out of the 2016 election and became a force in 2017, but women have been finding their footing and their independence and their freedom for many years now," she says. "I believe the play resonates with any woman sitting there—not only the messages about love and marriage, but also this sense of freedom: sexually, financially and otherwise."

The freedom to choose your desired sexual partner drives much of the script's action, but what appealed to Cooper was the theme of loving oneself, regardless of a romantic relationship. "The show is all about people finding love and discovering what that means to them," she says. Her character Marjorie has always followed the rules, but when her role as Beau's well-to-do wife is derailed, she's finally able to embrace what she really wants. "I think her very high-class echelon life never allowed her to delve deeply, but now that she's revealed her truest self, she is the happiest she's ever been."

Cooper, who recently starred in Oliver! as Nancy, a spirited woman in love with an abusive man, believes it's important to depict all kinds of women on stage, including those who aren't heroines. "I think we have this urge to see women triumph onstage, which I fully agree with, but the fact is, women aren't triumphing every day in the world," she says. "I think we need to represent the spectrum of women's successes and failures, all of the above."

While sex is hinted at in the plays of Coward and Wilde, it's discussed openly in The Cottage. Bundy has a line dismissing the patriarchal value of virginity, which elicits audience cheers. "One of the things that's so lovely about this play is, from the get-go, you see Sylvia is sexually liberated," Bundy explains. "She gives herself permission to be like, oh, I'm a sexual being. I like that she's unapologetic."

Cooper also appreciates portraying a strong, independent woman. "I'm proud to be able to play a female character on stage who has full autonomy of her body," she says. "We can't all say that today in our country specifically, because our rights are being stripped away from us. The fact that these women have full ownership of their bodies and their desires and what they want—I think it's beautiful and representative of something that we want for ourselves."

Bundy and Cooper were both attracted to the female empowerment in The Cottage because they're activists as well as actors: Bundy cofounded Womxn of Tomorrow, a nonprofit that aims to "change the social consciousness around women's roles in society through art, education and community." Meanwhile, Cooper became a role model for working moms last season when she simulated pumping breast milk on stage for laughs (while actually pumping backstage for her real-life baby) in Selina Fillinger's female-forward farce POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive. Mothers in the audience often waited for Cooper at the stage door to express their admiration. "They felt represented," she recalls. "I loved that."

A biting satire of patriarchal politics, POTUS' message and humor were important to Cooper. The Cottage gives her another chance to entertain and illuminate.

"I'm really happy that this show is a rollicking, funny farce, but also has honest, feminist undertones," she says. "You come and you laugh your ass off for a few hours, but also walk away with these wonderful quotes. We are here for the audience to fully enjoy themselves but we secretly sneak in a few little messages without beating them over the head."

Bundy agrees. "That special little message inside is the job that we get to do in this community. I think theatre is always at the forefront of revolution through entertainment."

TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for The Cottage. The show is also frequently available at our TKTS Discount Booths. Log in to your account to browse all our theatre and dance offers.

Top image: Dana Steingold, Lilli Cooper and Laura Bell Bundy in The Cottage on Broadway. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Carey Purcell writes about pop culture and politics for Vanity Fair, Politico and other publications. She recently published her first book: From Aphra Behn to Fun Home: A Cultural History of Feminist Theater.