By Bill Hirschman
Broward Stage Door’s production proves Rumors may be one of the funniest Neil Simon plays you’ve never heard of. But it also underscores what your mother warned you: an unrelieved diet of the most delicious candy will eventually lose its punch.
Written between the bittersweet Brighton Beach trilogy and the even darker Lost In Yonkers, the 1988 comedy was a respite for Simon – a pure farce that clearly drew on the memes of his early career as a fledgling writer for Your Show of Shows.
Director Dan Kelley and an energetic cast race lickety-split down that groove of classic sketch comedy wackiness: A bunch of silly people struggle to cope with an absurdly deteriorating situation, marked by an ever-increasing spiral of anxiety and a torrent of witty repartee. So there’s no question that the chuckles and chortles are plentiful in their hands, thanks to some pretty dead-on comic timing from the cast.
So perhaps it sounds petty to complain after decrying the lack of that timing in other (younger) casts who just don’t get that time-tested atavistic response to comedy rhythms originating in vaudeville and prehistoric campfires.
The problem here, keeping the show from being an unqualified success, is pacing. The frenzy is literally non-stop throughout the first act. The anxiety level starts around 7 or 8 on the Richter Scale, ratchets up pretty quickly to 9 and even 10, and then just keeps coming at you relentlessly for about an hour. This may not be Kelley’s fault; this seems to be how the script is written. That works in a 10-minute skit or even longer when you’re working with comic geniuses like Sid Caesar, Howard Morris, Imogene Coca and Carl Reiner. But an hour is exhausting.
The proof is that the second act, which allows the cast and the audience to breathe a bit, may actually be more comically satisfying because there’s more of a roller coaster with highs and lows. Heck, even Hamlet isn’t all tragedy.
The set up of Rumors is sublime silliness: Four well-heeled couples have come to the upscale and elegant home of the Deputy Mayor of New York City to celebrate his 10th wedding anniversary.
The first couple to arrive find the host has shot himself in the head, his wife is missing and the servants have gone AWOL before finishing the dinner preparations. The host is upstairs unwilling or unable to explain what happened. They panic and worry what the potential scandal would do their friend’s careers and their own.
So as three other couples arrive and eventually the police, the first couple constructs the classic web of manufactured lies that will deepen and become increasingly ludicrous, especially as each couple gets drawn into the truth and join in the ongoing deception. The guests – the host’s lawyer, tax accountant, therapist and fellow politician running for state senator along with their beautifully gowned wives — just compound the chaos.
There’s an Aesop’s moral underneath about the self-destructive nature of rumor-mongering and outright lies – a theme unintentionally apt for this election cycle. And Simon loves deflating the gentry, including a running joke about whether a guest wore a particular gown at this summer’s cause-of-the-month event or a different but interchangeable cause-of-the-month gala last spring.
Simon provides plenty of zingers, such as:
Husband: I see Glen and Cassie are walking up to the door.
Wife: I heard they were having trouble.
Husband: Not walking.
Or a woman going upstairs to attend to the victim: Is he still bleeding? I paid $1,200 for this dress.
Or a man suffering whiplash from a car accident a few minutes earlier: I can only look up. I hope there are tall people at this party.
Or, as the lies unravel: You’re running for state senate? I wouldn’t trust you to run for Chinese food.
May I have a rimshot, please?
This is solidly in Kelley’s wheelhouse, although the humor is more verbal and character-driven than physical. Still, Kelly gets the chance to stage such cute bits as the whiplash victim struggling to open a recalcitrant bag of pretzels.
He’s got a cast that actually understands comedy: Jill Taylor Anthony, Richard Brundage, Niki Fridh, Matthew Korinko, Christine DeFrece, Stephen Michael Guice, Leah Sessa, Glen Lawrence, Christopher DePaola and the non-speaking John Michael Gordon. While we’ve seen many of these cast members before in Stage Door shows, none had shown this level of expertise.
Granted, some folks are stronger than others and one playing a stick in the mud can’t keep up with the downhill toboggan race. The two most impressive performers are Korinko and Fridh playing the tax accountant and his wife. Fridh gets many of Simon’s subversive jabs at the monied class, firing off rejoinders with the dry, arch topspin of an Elaine Stritch. Korinko, the co-founder of Slow Burn Theatre Company, projects the charm and charisma of a leading man along with a facility for Simon’s call-and-response humor masquerading as dialogue. In addition to the painful wrestling match with the pretzel bag, Korinko makes the most of a second act manic monologue (we’ll keep the circumstances a surprise) that indicates Simon had to be thinking of Sid Caesar’s inimitable gifts a half-century ago.
While this still is not Simon’s funniest work, second-string Simon is better than many folks’ masterworks. But there is a slightly musty smell to some of the running bits like having a gunshot deafen one guest and then having him misunderstand most of what is said to him. Such flaws will make folks glance at their watch even while they are cackling.
That said, this is one of the better farces Stage Door has mounted in some time.
Rumors through Nov. 11 at The Broward Stage Door Theatre, 8036 West Sample Road, Coral Springs. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturda; 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call 954-344-7765 or visit www.stagedoortheatre.com.