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‘Rumors’ is an unpretentious little farce that’s big on laughs


Neil Simon’s Rumors opened June 13 at New Phoenix Theatre. In classical farce tradition, the production is full of slamming doors, misdirection, subterfuge, rampant rumors and jumping to outlandishly erroneous conclusions. In other words, audiences are in for an evening of sheer fun.

In the case of Rumors, the fun comes from watching Simon’s characters fall all over themselves trying to keep straight the elaborate stories they concoct to explain to each other and the police how their host suffered a gunshot wound to his left earlobe and the correlative absence of their hostess and the couple’s entire domestic staff.

The injured man’s name is Charlie Brock, and he’s the Deputy Mayor of New York. He and his wife, Myra, have invited four couples to their large, tastefully-appointed Sneden’s Landing townhouse to help them celebrate the happy occasion. Charlie’s lawyer, Ken, and wife, Chris, are the first to arrive. Finding Charlie bleeding like a stuck pig and Myra missing in action, Ken quickly constructs a lame excuse to explain their “indisposition” to the other three couples since the last thing his client needs is the bad press that would attend an accidental shooting or, even worse, an unsuccessful suicide attempt. As the other guests arrive, the story keeps changing and the confusion mounts before predictably devolving into out-of-control hilarity.

Director Scott Carpenter’s well-coached cast turns in strong comedic performances to a person, beginning with Greg Wojciechowski and Darlyne Franklin, who play Ken and Chris. Wojciechowski is exceedingly believable as a conniving lawyer.He should be, having practiced law in Chicago, where he acted in court and tapped danced around the facts in front of juries for more than 25 years. A progenitor of interactive theater, Franklin is equally convincing as the dutiful ditzy blond wife struggling to keep up with her duplicitous hubbie as he makes up lies on the fly until he drops Charlie’s gun while attempting to hide it in the bedroom closet, deafening himself temporarily and simultaneously amping up the antics.

Next to arrive in the Brocks’ townhouse are Lenny and Claire Ganz, played by Sam Bostic and Laura Licata. Laura has directed numerous shows in Lee County over the past decade and a half, but this role marks her return to the stage after a lengthy absence. You’d never know. Her performance is smooth and seamless. But the true star of the show (no disrespect to rest of the cast) is Sam Bostic, the Brocks’ highly excitable – bordering on histrionic – accountant. He’s downright hysterical flopping on his wife and then the couch when Ken and Chris finally take him and Claire into their confidence and tell them Charlie’s been shot. But he’s nothing short of brilliant at the end of the show when, wrapped in a bandage and pretending to be Charlie, he fabricates a story for the police explaining the gunshots, missing staff and his wife’s absence. The yarn is just crazy enough to be true!

John Strealy and Jackie Patterson portray a kooky psychologist by the name of Ernie and his even kookier wife Cookie, who’s a television chef. Strealy continues to take strides in developing his acting vocabulary and skills while Patterson, making her New Phoenix debut, not only has some funny lines but the show’s most memorable scene, in which she drags herself on her elbows and knees across the floor on her way into the kitchen after her back goes out and neither her husband nor any of the other guests see fit to help her to her feet.

Marshall Prater and Stella Zuri play the battling Coopers. He’s a candidate for senate. “State senate whose office will be located in Albany,” wife Cassie vomits, the bile rising in her throat at the very thought of being marooned in the New York State capital hours from Manhattan. Prater’s role in the relationship is to be the clarion of caution and the voice of reason in an ongoing-but-futile attempt to keep his suspicious, self-absorbed wife from detonating like an IED.

Bill Allenfort and Rosie DeLeon round out the cast as the cops sent to investigate what begins as a car accident and ends up with a complaint filed by neighbors about shots fired in their swanky, upscale neighborhood.

Neil Simon is best known for The Odd Couple and The Out-of-Towners, but his other playwriting credits include Murder by Death, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues. Rumors was actually the first farce he’d ever written and, as is typical of all his plays, he incorporates humanity and pathos into his comedy, which gives his shows greater depth, feeling and a sense of timelessness. And yet, Rumors does suffer from one glaring infirmity, at least by 2019 standards. For all its strengths (and there are many), Rumors regrettably lacks the strong female characters that actors and audiences covet in a modern day musical or play.

Chris and Claire come off in Simon’s script as their husbands’ intellectual inferiors, submissive to a fault. They barely bat an eye at being ordered about by their alpha males. Cookie is painted as eccentric but, mais oui, she’s great in the kitchen. And while Cassie seems at first blush to be the one woman in the group who’s forceful and nobody’s fool, Simon crafts her as verbally acerbic and physically abusive shrew whose paranoia-bordering-on-full-fledged-psychosis are barely ameliorated by the calming crystals she carries in her purse. (Apparently, there just aren’t enough Blue Lace Agate, jet stones, Black Tourmaline and Fluorite to calm this high-strung beauty.) That said, Cassie is nevertheless a fun character to play, and Zuri has the temperament, chops and pedigree to portray her with chilling realism. (In fact, her portrayal is reminiscent of Robert Caisley’s Eva in Happy, although Cassie lacks Eva’s intellectual prowess and penchant for screwing with the minds of the men she encounters just for fun and sport).

And then there’s poor Rosie DeLeon, who barely gets to speak in the role of Officer Pudney. It’s too bad that Neil Simon didn’t switch the roles of Pudney and Welch. It would have been redemptive to have the female cop do the interrogation that leads to Lenny’s rambling storyline at the end of the show.

But Carpenter and the cast do a terrific job with the characters and storyline notwithstanding this one perceived flaw in the script. And in Neil Simon’s defense, Rumors doesn’t purport to be great literary theater. It’s a farce in the finest tradition of the genre – unpretentious humor and light-hearted comedy in a world that has a tendency to take itself too seriously and be a little too politically correct most of the time.

You’ll have fun watching this show – and who can’t use a little more laughter in this day and age?

June 14, 2019.




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