Theatre Huntsville just closed an enjoyable production of Rumors at the VBC Playhouse.  This Neil Simon play is a silly farce, with nothing but entertainment on its mind, and this production provided plenty of that.

Rumors is not Neil Simon at his best.  He is famous for tackling serious personal issues under the cover of witty zingers and zippy dialogue, but when he wrote this play he was having some serious personal issues of his own, and just wanted to create something fun and lighthearted.  The result was his first farce, which still contains his brilliant dialogue, but is not a hallmark of the genre.  The best farces place the protagonists into a stressful situation, wherein they take a series of logical steps to attain or avoid some outcome, and each step goes a little wrong, forcing them down a path that builds to a completely ridiculous, usually hilarious, climax.  While this play does contain an unlikely situation, it hardly builds to anything beyond where it starts, and the stakes are a bit forced.  The plot revolves around four couples who have been invited to a couple’s house to join in a tenth-anniversary dinner.  Just as the first guest couple arrives, they hear a gunshot, and rush inside to discover the servants and the wife missing, and the husband bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound to his ear.  The farcical situation stems from the group of friends constantly trying to keep the truth from each set of later-arriving couples.  The only “steps” involve the next couple arriving, and the previous couples agreeing again to keep the secret.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  The police arrive in the second act, which does have the possibility of raising the stakes a bit, but Simon pretty much already has the house in full chaos mode already, so it doesn’t really take the tension anywhere.  Given that the entire plot would go away if this group of friends just told each other the truth, this is a weak entry in the farce category.  Additionally, the characters don’t really develop into anything, and there are lots of dangling threads (all the “rumors”) that never get cleaned up.  All that said, this is still Neil Simon, and there’s a reason he has more combined Tony and Oscar nominations than anyone else.  The dialogue is still brilliant, and he mines every moment to their full potential for zingers.

This production was a fun evening at the theatre, and contains many belly laugh moments, thanks to those great one-liners.  John Hancock’s direction nicely handled a stage-full of characters, and used the space well.  The one letdown is that there seemed little effort to heighten the stakes with the frenetic blocking the script needed at times.  Likewise, it missed the few moments that Simon wrote in for taking the tempo down a bit, and giving the audience a breather.  Instead, it came across as an evening of letting the actors cruise through the space at a relatively even pace throughout, enjoying their witty banter.  Every script has its best pace, and this show should have been even shorter than its two-hour running time.

This ensemble cast all clearly had a lot of fun, and earned their laughs.  Jake Barrow, as “Lenny”, and Sarah Brown, as “Claire”, were probably the best, most “real” couple on the stage, and turned in remarkable performances.  I happened to see the one show with the understudy, Tiffany Gray, playing “Chris”, but there was little indication of the butterflies she had to be feeling on her “opening night”, because she held her own admirably. Patrick Green, as her husband, “Ken”, who spent half the show deafened, did a nice job playing the person dealing with the crazy situation the longest.  Valerie MacMurdy, as “Cookie”; and John Seigh, as “Ernie”, as the unfortunate couple that is fooled by the others the longest, relaxed into their roles as the patsies, and played their parts with honesty.  Claire Crenshaw and De’Tray Wade, as the last couple to arrive, “Cassie” and “Glenn”, had the misfortune of playing the least likable character couple onstage, but still managed to play their parts smoothly.  Joshua Phillips, as Officer Welch, had a very short, but important, time onstage, and was quite believable as the overworked police officer who just wanted to go home, and really didn’t want to deal with this room-full of crazies.

The set, by James Bleier, could have had its seams patched a bit more smoothly, but was otherwise very well-constructed, standing up well to the occasional door-slam.  The set dressing was under-stated, given that this is nominally the home of the deputy mayor of New York, but we are willing to forgive that once the dialogue gets going.  The effect of the headlights flashing on the windows with each arriving car, was very well done, but the lighting, by Cynthia Meyer, was not otherwise called on to do much.  Men’s Wearhouse provided all the tuxes, and Suzi Noble handled the rest of the costumes, which were very well chosen, with an especially nice job on the outdated gown worn by “Cookie”.  This production chose to mic the cast, which was unfortunate.  There was no music or loud sound effects to talk over, and by putting all the voices through the speakers, it became impossible to “stage whisper”, or for the actors to otherwise control their volume for any dramatic purposes.  To add to that, the microphones appear to be getting old, with plenty of pops and fizzes throughout the show which were a constant annoyance for the audience.

Overall, this was a fun show, and it definitely contained some belly-laugh moments, owing to Simon’s amazing ability with one-liners and come-backs.  The show is now closed, but if you made it to the theatre for one of the performances, you definitely left with a smile on your face from all the silly antics and great lines.  Rumors was the last show for Theatre Huntsville’s 2015-16 season.  Information on their next season can be found at this link, with their first show in September, slated to be a fun, comedic whodunit, The Game’s Afoot.

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