Jason Alexander Makes His Broadway (Directing) Debut With ‘The Cottage’

Alexander—a Tony winning theater veteran—talks about tapped another former NBC sitcom star, Eric McCormack, for his new Broadway farce.

Playwright Sandy Rustin and director Jason Alexander take part in the opening night curtain call for The Cottage at the Hayes Theater on July 24, 2023 in New York City. Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Had you attended Monday night’s opening of Sandy Rustin’s The Cottage at The Helen Hayes Theater, you would not have found Jason Alexander cowering in the control room, biting his nails and jittering with nerves about making his Broadway-directing debut. You would have found him in the audience, smack-dab in the middle of the merriment, surrounded by some 20 friends and family who had come in from California to support the director’s latest gambit.

This particular gambit started six years ago when Alexander visited an agency that represented playwright Rustin. They showed him one of her plays which did not have a director attached to it and then discreetly mixed it in with stacks of other unclaimed plays they suggested he might peruse.

The Cottage was quick to assert itself, Alexander remembers. “It just jumped out at me,” he tells Observer. “It was really funny on the page. You know what it reminded me of? It reminded me of Noises Off.”

Seesawing between hilarity and hysteria, Noises Off—which originated in London in 1982 and made trips to Broadway in 1983, 2001 and 2016—is a backstage slapstick about things that go wrong while doing an aggressively arcane sex comedy. The Cottage is that play that goes wrong—a sex comedy where six people endlessly couple, uncouple, and recouple.

“I didn’t know if I had the ability to direct something like a Noises Off,” Alexander is quick to admit. “But I sure appreciated the results, so I said, ‘Let me take a shot.’ Sandy and I met. We hit it off and decided we would mutually tie our wagons to each other and see where it led.”

Though The Cottage marks Alexander’s debut as a Broadway director, he made his debut as a Broadway actor back in 1981, in Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, and it was his base of operations through 1989, when he starred in (and won a best actor Tony for) Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. Then Los Angeles beckoned, and he put in nine years (1989-1998) as Jerry Seinfeld’s blumbling best bud George Costanza on TV’s Seinfeld.

Laura Bell Bundy and Eric McCormack in The Cottage. Joan Marcus

For this current Broadway foray his chief theatrical conspirator was another veteran of both NBC’s Thursday night lineup and the stage: Eric McCormack, best known as Will of Will & Grace and himself a former Broadway Music Man. “Eric and I have been acquaintances and then friends for about 25 years,” Alexander says. “Our kids went to the same schools so we did a lot of school benefits together. And then I once directed him in an L.A. production of The Fantasticks.” 

That was in 2009, at L.A.’s Reprise Theatre Company. Now a second actor-director pairing is afoot, and it came together quickly. “Eric was—or is—attached to another play I was looking to do, but we haven’t nailed down a Broadway house for it. Then, this Cottage came along, and I called him. We really had only one week to decide, so I said to him, ‘You gotta read a different play now, and you gotta tell me overnight what you think.’ He did, and here we are.”

Laura Bell Bundy, Legally Blonde as ever, came aboard next as McCormack’s sister-in-law (and sometimes mistress). “Laura and Eric are people I knew and talents I knew,” Alexander says. “We just offered the roles to them. Everybody else came from the audition process, but, usually, when they walked into the room, it was pretty much a done deal. We kept saying, ‘Well, that role’s cast now.’”

Among the Prized Acquisitions: Lilli Cooper, her character as pregnant as the one she played in POTUS, now by her brother-in-law (the agile SNL escapee, Alex Moffat). The last couple is McCormack’s most enduring  mistress (Dana Steingold) and her lover back from the grave for her (Nehal Joshi).

Laura Bell Bundy, Alex Moffat,Lilli Cooper,Eric McCormack, and Dana Steingold (from left) in The Cottage. Joan Marcus

It would seem that only experienced comedic talents applied, and Alexander thanks his lucky stars. “Comedies are hard, so there’s just not a lot of them at any given time,” he explains. “It surely does seem, from the very first audience that we had on The Cottage, like people come in wanting to laugh, ready to laugh, and thankful that they have something they can laugh at.”

And that, Alexander knows, is never a given. “The hardest part of putting a comedy together is that you put it together without an audience,” he says. “And you just keep your fingers crossed that it’s actually funny. You’re thinking it is, you’re hoping it is, but you don’t really know until the audience comes in. It is constantly a delight and an amazement to me at how much they enjoy this. They start enjoying it from the first second.”

Actors are allowed a lion’s share of input in creating and shaping their characters, and the director patiently listens and refines those ideas. And the actors are, by no means, alone. 

“I get great ideas coming from designers and stage managers,” Alexander says. “On Day One, I always make an announcement where I say, ‘I don’t care where good ideas come from. It’s all collaborative. Especially with a comedy, it’s a sense of humor, and everybody’s sense of humor in a little bit different. It may be great, it may be awful, you never know until you get there.”

There was one bit that, says Alexander, sets the tone for the whole show—though initially it wasn’t clear it would work. “Eric makes his entrance with a towel around his neck, and suddenly the towel flies up the stairs,” Alexander explains. “People said, ‘This isn’t a magic show,’ and I said, ‘It’s not supposed to come off as a magic trick. It’s supposed to come off like he’s an absolutely perfect person.’ It was clunky at first, but, once it started working, the audience had a huge response to it every time. I thought, ‘Okay, I fought for that one, and it turned out to be a good thing.’”

Alexander should, and would, know funny—especially after nearly a decade on Seinfeld. It’s his most famous role to date, garnering him seven Primetime Emmy Awards nominations and four Golden Globes noms (it didn’t help that was often up against his co-star, Michael Richards, a three-time Emmy winner). The award that Alexander did win—that Tony for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway as 1989’s Best Actor in a Musical—came in a roundabout way. “It was extraordinary,” he admits, “particularly because it was for a show I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do because I didn’t know how the heck I was going to fit into it. I’m not that kind of dancer, and it was primarily a dance show.”

Jason Alexander with ensemble cast backstage on opening night of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway at the Imperial Theatre in New York City on Feb 26, 1989. Walter McBride/Corbis via Getty Images

Alexander was in Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound—which ran for three years at the Broadhurst Theatre—and it was one of the producers of that show, Manny Azenberg, who brought him into Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. “I had done some writing for Manny behind the scenes, and he got it into his head that I could write this thing, so he introduced me to Jerry Robbins,” says Alexander. “Jerry and I chatted, and he got won over as well. I wrote five different versions of that show because Jerry really didn’t know what he wanted to do. Eventually, it became exactly what you saw. Fascinating time! I got to work behind the scenes of a major Broadway musical

The capper for this came when he actually held the Tony Award for a role he had had a hand in creating—in fitting in. “It was a very early culmination of a lot of fantasies I had as a kid. As a result of it coming very early in my life, I’ve had to recalibrate what you fantasize about.”

Happily, Jason Alexander has a brand-new Broadway directing career to start recalibrating about.

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Jason Alexander Makes His Broadway (Directing) Debut With ‘The Cottage’