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Neil Simon’s “Rumors” – play review

Theater Review: Simon’s farcical ‘Rumors’ is absurd but enjoyable

Left to right: Brandy Jones, Brandon Leatherman, Rhoda Jane Gary, Chris Maxie and Pamela Grier in Big Dawg’s production of Rumors, a farce by Neil Simon. Photo courtesy of Big Dawg Productions

By John Staton

Right before Big Dawg Productions’ performance of the Neil Simon farce “Rumors” began on Sunday afternoon, a Wilmington actor who’s been in dozens of shows remarked to me that performing a Simon play “is just like boiling an egg.”

In other words, all of the hard work’s been done already, in this case by Simon. As an actor, all you’ve got to do is learn your lines, turn up the heat and watch the magic happen.

That’s pretty much what occurs in this tight, crowd-pleasing comedy at the Cape Fear Playhouse directed by Tony Moore, whose cast, for the most part, handles Simon’s rapid-fire quips and turns of phrase adeptly and navigates the script’s twists and turns adroitly to arrive, wheels screeching, at a surprise ending that’s just as silly and ludicrous as everything that came before it.

Unlike Simon’s more serious comedies, like “The Odd Couple” or even “The Last of the Red-Hot Lovers,” there’s no underlying angst to be explored beneath the thickly layered plot and avalanche of jokes and one-liners that are “Rumors.” It’s pure farce, with the requisite crazy situations, perfectly timed doors opening and closing and chance ailments (a whiplash injury here, a temporary loss of hearing there) adding to the hilarity.

There’s also the subtext of ridiculing the rich and successful, with their piddling problems and weird relationships. We certainly aren’t meant to sympathize with these nutty characters, just laugh at them.

All of the action takes place in one room of what’s supposed to be a swank mansion in the New York suburbs. That the set looks more like a halfway decent artists’ studio in a walk-up apartment building is more of a comment on the tiny stage at the Cape Fear Playhouse than on the skill of set designer Doug Dodson, who has created a perfectly utilitarian space for the actors to work on.

The plot revolves around the efforts of high-strung married lawyers Ken and Chris (Kevin Wilson and Brandy Jones) to handle a situation they’ve stumbled into as the play opens. At what’s supposed to be a 10th anniversary party for New York City deputy mayor Charley Brock and his wife, Myra, the hostess and the help are nowhere to be seen and the host has a bloody ear from what might be a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Soon, other couples begin to arrive, and Ken and Chris alternate between keeping the truth from the newcomers and bringing them into the fold to help perpetrate the subterfuge. In between, they backbite, talk junk about each other, eavesdrop and spread the rumors of the play’s title.

The writing is so efficient and Moore’s direction so well-paced that nuanced characterizations or even strong acting aren’t as important as they might normally be. Nevertheless, there are some skilled performances here.

Wilson does his usual workmanlike job as the take-charge Ken. He’s a great straight man, and keeps scenes on-course with his lawyerly, nothing-to-see-here smile.

As hot-blooded couple Len and Claire, Chris Maxie infuses his scenes with a put-upon energy while Pamela Grier’s deadpan sass as Claire steals a few scenes.

Daniel Marks is entertainingly pompous as aspiring state senator Glenn, while Amanda Young matches his uptightness with a New Agey, castrating belligerence as Glenn’s spouse, Cassie.

Brandon Leatherman and Rhoda Jane Gary are fun as the evening’s most annoyingly affectionate couple, sensitive shrink Ernie and his wife, the accident-prone cooking show host, Cookie.

The pure corniness of Simon’s writing can start to grate after a while, and the chemistry of the unflappable cast – which gamely stopped in the middle of a scene and redid part of act one after a sick audience member had to be escorted out of the theater – takes something of hit in the second act. Midway through, an inquisitive police detective, played haltingly and hesitantly by Richard Eisen, shows up with a busty police girl (Erika Hendrix), her shirt unbuttoned to a ridiculous degree, by his side.

This interrupts the flow of the main cast members somewhat, but despite threatening to go off the rails, the show recovers, thanks largely to a great scene by Maxie during which his character, under duress, spins a whopper of whoppers, a tall tale gone wild.

All in all not quite as easy as boiling an egg, probably, but to his credit, director Moore makes it look almost that simple.

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