Peninsula Community Theatre has promoted Rumors with the tagline “an elegant farce.”
This comes from a 1988 New York Times interview with Neil Simon, in which he described how he wanted to make his first farce about rich people in fancy clothes because that’s the type of thing Moliere would do. I’m willing to admit that maybe I just don’t get Neil Simon on this one, but while it may be elegant, this play hardly seems comparable to Moliere. Few of the jokes set up for a very strong payoff, some of the comedic scenes simply distract from the actual action of the play, the plot is painfully contrived, and the script is repetitive without the rule of three–type twists that make such reiterations satisfying.
The story, set in the late 80s, centers around four couples as they sequentially arrive for the 10th anniversary party of their friend Charley and his wife Myra. Neither Charley nor Myra is ever seen during the course of the show. The Gormans are the first couple to have arrived, and they discover that Charley is alone with a gunshot wound to the ear, which they assume was a suicide attempt. Myra is nowhere to be found, and Charley is too zonked out on Valium to explain what happened. Ken Gorman also happens to be Charley’s lawyer and wants to save Charley the embarrassment of a scandal, so he and his wife Chris set about hiding the details from the next couple to arrive, Mr. and Mrs. Ganz. The Ganzes eventually find out what’s happened, and then they and the Gormans debate calling the police, but such discussion is halted when they decide to hide the events of the evening from the next two couples, the Cusacks and the Coopers. Inevitably, everyone finds out the circumstances, but they all scramble to conceal (with increasingly convoluted explanations) the details of the evening from the final “guests” to arrive: the police. Despite the fear and frantic deception of the partygoers, one thing becomes clear: except for some basic details about the evening (a man with a gunshot wound, a missing wife, and missing household servants), any other “fact” is just a best guess.
I have to applaud the actors for their investment in the story. Paul Lawrence as Lenny Ganz is animated and highly physical, which helps him drive the humor at numerous points during the show, from his opening whiplash to his final monologue. Danon Middleton as Ken Gorman has a permeating drive and focus onstage. I do hope that Siarra Bouches, who plays Cassie Cooper, connects more with her castmates onstage during the course of the run, as she seemed sometimes too focused on repeating her rehearsed lines than reacting in the moment—perhaps just because this was opening weekend. Her character has a lot of potential for comedy, especially with the pre-wound tension with her husband, and I would love to see that spring to fruition.
I would also like to have seen more dynamic from Lauren Vollette as Chris Gorman: she seemed a bit flat at times, though this could in part be attributed to Simon’s lack of nuance in his female characters, all of whom he seems to have written as perpetually disgruntled to some degree or another. Vollette wasn’t without some shining moments, though: in one, she and Carla Mutone, who played Claire Ganz, had a real gem as they ran to the bathroom to hide from the doorbell, sure to grab the decanter of scotch before they lock themselves in. That earned a cackle from me. It would, however, serve the entire cast well to pick up the pacing: with snappier timing, the verbal slapstick would land on more laughter.
The design of this production mostly implied a contemporary setting, and this is workable, aside from a few brief references to car phones. “Contemporary” doesn’t seem to be director Mike Diana’s plan, though, as his director’s note says to “imagine it’s 1989.” I didn’t even realize this until after the show, and while it cleared up some confusion for me, it might leave the audience wondering how clearly Mr. Diana’s intentions were communicated to his design team.
Sound designer Christopher Grafton missed an opportunity to set the mood with pre-show music: rather than music of the time, it was a warbling set of off-key instrumental and operatic music, reminding me more of seeing Florence Foster Jenkins at the cinema than an upper class party of the late 80s. (During one song, what I can only guess is some sort of imbalance in their sound system made the music physically uncomfortable to listen to—a reverberation from the two rear speakers causing a buzzing in both of my ears.) The first hint of period music comes late in the show, when the stereo gets turned on to Gloria Estefan’s “Conga.”
The set by Patty Ellison, while about 20 years ahead of its time (or at least the director’s time), was pleasant to look at in its pretty tonal blues, furniture accents in salmon, and a stained glass feature above the front window. My main complaint was that as actors entered the kitchen, they were passing behind that window, meaning the layout can’t practically exist in reality. This perhaps could have been solved by putting the window nearer to or on the other side of the front door. It was also distracting that the set features an old-timey, 1940s-looking radio instead of a big, powerful 1980s stereo system like the script cries out for. Come on— even as a millennial who has almost exclusively owned music players that fit inside my hand, I know the difference.
The costumes by Pam Revill were nice, if also too modern. The men were all in classic tuxes, with the exception of Glen Cooper, the aspiring politician, who was in a very stylish, possibly damask, tux jacket. I was a bit puzzled during the show, though, as his wife Cassie was wearing an 80s relic: a blue sheath dress with sparkly puff sleeves. While lovely, it seemed comparatively anachronistic. It would have seemed far less out of place had the other women onstage been wearing 80s dresses, but Mrs. Gorman and Mrs. Ganz were both attired conforming to recent trends. (Nevertheless, I loved Mrs. Ganz’s silver and white ensemble. And Mrs. Cusack’s dress is exempted, as it looked passably like a 60-year-old gift from her Russian grandmother, just as the script calls for.) Hair and makeup styling also looked contemporary. The police looked great, complete with radios and duty belts and badges and hats that were absolutely spot-on.
In spite of some design shortcomings, the cast still makes this show an enjoyable watch. Even if you don’t love Neil Simon, you can still get a kick out of out of this zany farce, an elegant dance of door-slamming and verbal sparring, just as I did. If you do love Neil Simon, all the better—you’ll enjoy the way this seemingly light fare has some meat to it, as it subtly explores the power of assumption though its bubbling humor.
Rumors runs thru May 14 at Peninsula Community Theatre. Fri & Sat 8:00pm, Sun 2:30pm. Tix: $18 Reg, $17 Seniors, Military/Dep, $12 Students. Get ’em here, or call (757) 595-5728.
Also, be advised, this play features adults speaking as real adults might in farcically high-stress situations, so maybe leave the wee ones at home this time around.
And be sure to let us know in the comments what you thought of the show!!