David Belew’s production of Neil Simon’s “Rumors” is a breakneck, batty and very funny door-slamming farce. If you’ve seen “Noises Off” or the French comedies that inspired it, you know what a “door slamming farce” is: characters enter a scene, moving quickly around the set and drop a joke like a water balloon, quickly exiting through a door before the balloon hits the ground. The universal truth about these types of comedies is that they’re fun to watch but famously hard to perform. Timing isn’t just “everything,” it’s the driving force of every moment. The actors have to exude not merely energy but a synchronized effort to keep every word and action moving forward at a faster-than-usual pace. One dropped line or an actor missing their mark and tripping can jam the entire thing up. All that to say that Belew has encouraged great things from his actors, who are up to the verbal and physical demands and do wonderful things from start to finish.
The story is set on a dinner party that begins with a mysterious shooting, guests who are as in the dark as the audience and a series of couples whose post-shooting arrival only makes things increasingly worse. “Rumors” is performed in two tight acts and, like any great stage comedy, offers a collection of actors whose inner joy seems to mirror the experience an audience will feel while watching them.
Lou Young is hilarious playing Ken, taking the role to comic extremes but grounding it in reality. The sight of him searching the stage for a ringtone, which he believes is a cat, is something I’ll treasure. Playing Lenny, David Negaard has a crucial, late-in-the-show monolog in the second act that he turns into a tour de force. Dan Church and Hana Valle are very amusing playing a young, would-be couple whose political aspirations crumble over the course of the night. Keith Welch gives a stylish turn as a cop who can’t believe his luck in corning such a group of obviously guilty suspects. Cindy Reeves succeeds at making Cookie an adorable figure, more dotty and sweet than truly dumb. Rose is so good playing Claire, I found myself compelled by her performance even when she simply sat and nonchalantly munched on pretzels. Some of my favorite moments were the knowing glances shared between Rose and Ally Shore (another comic dynamo and in terrific form here).
The appearance of a pretzel is fitting, as the plot isn’t tidy or easy to follow. In fact, even thinking about the play hours later, I’m still unsure of what really happened versus the piles of lies the protagonists pile on at a moment’s notice. Even the characters struggle to keep track of the plot, which is part of the joke. It’ a very good thing the one-liners are barbed and consistently funny. Here’s one of the better ones: “I needed a cigarette so bad, I went into the bathroom and lit up a Q-tip.”
Despite the 80’s-infused mise-en-scene, the most nostalgia inducing quality is simply Neil Simon. Now that we have to deal so suddenly with having to refer to the legendary playwright as “the late Neil Simon,” his work is a piece of an overall collection to seek out. I will miss hearing about the opening of a new Simon play and discovering, yet again, he composed another masterpiece. Now, with “Rumors,” which isn’t one of Simon’s more famous pieces, this is an opportunity to experience a lesser known but no less potent work from one of theater’s essential artists.
Ricky Jones’ beautiful set is so period-correct, it uncannily resembles my Aunt Teri’s home (which she purchased in the 1980’s). I mean this as high praise…just please don’t tell my Aunt Teri I wrote this. Vicki Nelson’s costumes are fabulous, as chic splashes of color give the characters a look of sophistication that they in no way exude (the exception is Cookie, hilariously sporting a “60-year old Russian dress”).
I don’t recall how “Rumors” was received in the 1980’s but looking at it now, it plays like a parody of 80’s excess. The main characters are all wealthy, white New Yorkers and tightly wound even before the shenanigans fully ensue. Cultural touchstones like “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Platoon” and Mikhail Gorbachev are brought up and Club Nouveau’s radio staple “Rumors” bookends each the acts. I suspect each of these characters has read Lee Iacocca’s biography, have U2’s “The Joshua Tree” in their tape decks and take mental notes during viewings of “Dynasty.” In other words, these characters are fun to dislike. This collection of entitled, wealthy clods struggle to control the impossibly slippery narratives of their lives. Whereas Simon’s gentler character-driven comedies emphasize pathos and possibilities outside of the city limits, “Rumors” is a plump, cleverly positioned whoopee cushion for the rich and insufferable.
Rumors plays Sept 28-Oct 14 at the Historic Iao Theater. Tickets are available at mauionstage.com or by calling 808-242-6969.