Aspen Times Weekly: Funny Girl
If You Go…
Presented by Theatre Aspen
July 24 - Aug. 16
Hurst Theatre, Rio Grande Park
Tickets and info: www.theatreaspen.org
In the rehearsal room at the Red Brick Center for the Arts, as the cast runs through the second act of the new Sandy Rustin play, “The Cottage,” actors from other Theatre Aspen shows sit around the periphery smirking, giggling and belly-laughing at the show’s farcical melodrama. Rustin and director Don Stephenson look on and take notes. There’s a palpable energy in the room — a mix between the thrill of creation and the snickering joy of cutting up in the back of a high school classroom. Stephenson and his team are having fun.
“If you’re doing a comedy it should be fun in there,” he explains after they wrap for the day. “Otherwise you’re kind of defeating your purpose. So I try to set a tone in the room that’s fun and relaxed, so everybody can do their best job. If you get all tight and worried it’s not going to be fun and it’s not going to be funny.”
“The Cottage” is a farcical sex comedy written in the cheeky style of English playwright Noel Coward’s “Private Lives.” Set in the English countryside in the 1920s, it follows the fallout after a woman reveals an affair to both her husband and her lover’s wife.
“When I first read it, it was like Noel Coward had written it and put it in a drawer and someone had just found it,” says Stephenson.
One key twist on Coward’s formula, however, is that the women in the play get to be funny. In Coward’s plays, Rustin notes, the women were “buffoons and eye candy.”
“I thought, ‘I want to be in a show like that but I want to be the funniest. What would that look like,’” she says.
Rustin is a longtime fan of Coward’s, she explains, but the play was actually inspired by a cartoon in The New Yorker depicting a woman draped over a chaise lounge and a disheveled man in a bowtie. Ten or so years back, she saw it, named the characters Sylvia and Beau, wrote a few pages of dialogue, and filed it away. Two years ago, when the second of her two young sons reached school age, she returned to it and wrote a first draft of “The Cottage” in a week’s time.
A New York-based actress and improv comedian, Rustin played Babe in the 2008 Theatre Aspen production of “Crimes of the Heart,” and has since had success as a playwright with “Rated P for Parenthood,” which had an Off-Broadway run in 2012 and is currently in development for television.
She first met “The Cottage” star Nancy Anderson while serving as her understudy on a show in New York in 2002.
“She was the freshest little actress ever and so bubbly,” recalls Anderson. “You would have never imagined this literary genius rested in her.”
Alongside Anderson, the show stars Bailey Frankenberg — both are also featured in Theatre Aspen’s ongoing production of “The Full Monty” — and Michael Kostroff, an actor fans of “The Wire” will recognize as the slimy lawyer Maury Levy. Spencer Plachy and Michele Ragusa (also in “Full Monty”) and Broadway regular Mark Price round out the cast.
They had about two weeks of rehearsals before their first preview, and open the show on Thursday, July 24. Stephenson knew most of the actors before coming to Aspen, and was confident they could pull off the show in a few weeks.
“I knew them and I knew we could do it in the time we had,” he says. “Because I knew they were fast and they’d understand the comedy of it all. I wasn’t going to have to explain it to them — just show them where to go and give them the rhythms, the point of view.”
Stephenson is an animated conversationalist, and an acclaimed performer himself, coming off of a role in this year’s Tony-winning Best Musical, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”
“Don’s the funniest man in show business,” says Rustin.
As an actor, Stephenson says, he’s at his best with a director who gives him clear instructions on the basics — where to stand and move and such — so that he can focus on his character’s inner workings. He tries to do the same with his actors, while keeping track of the big picture of the show and how its jokes land.
“You don’t know what to do when you’re up there,” he says with a laugh.
Discussing his approach to directing “The Cottage” on the lawn at the Red Brick, he spouted quotes from “The Producers,” cracked wise, and drummed on a table to demonstrate the rhythm of comedy.
“You need actors that can feel that rhythm and musicality,” Stephenson explains between thrums.
His hammy approach to communication has translated into loose actors in a relaxed rehearsal room.
“Don gives the actors room to explore and find what’s funny to them,” says Rustin. “And he has the patience to know when to fine-tune it and finesse it, so the actors have ownerships of the roles.”
His comedic instincts, adds Anderson, elevates the cast’s level of trust in their leader: “Don is one of the funniest actors anybody knows. When you walk into a room with him you know he’s going to be able to tell when it’s funny and when it’s not.”
Rustin has previously done a few readings of the play with her theater company — Midtown Direct Rep in New Jersey — along with a showcase in Queens, and it’s being staged by other regional theaters. But the Aspen production of “The Cottage” is the first full staging with which Rustin has been involved.
“This has been my first chance to be in the room everyday and hear it and watch it get up on its feet moment to moment,” Rustin
The lack of a precedent, says Stephenson, is both exciting and intimidating, because the next three weeks of performances here will create a template for future productions of the show.
“This is the best part of it,” adds Rustin. “You have your own imagination of what it is, then you hand it over to the director and then he puts his layer of imagination on it, then you hand it to the designers and the actors and it’s their imagination on top of that and it’s awesome.”
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