Sunday, May 12, 2013

"Rumors" Is Minor Neil Simon, but Hayswood Delivers Good Effort


By Neil Simon
Directed by George Robert Bailey

Reviewed by Keith Waits.

Entire contents are copyright © 2013 Keith Waits. All rights reserved. 
Rumors is a Neil Simon farce that follows a classic model: misunderstandings and subterfuge and frenetic activity abound, and as a schematic exercise the esteemed writer follows the blueprints pretty closely. By his own account, the writing was something of an academic exercise, setting himself the task of creating a farce so as to kick-start his creativity during a slump.
Perhaps this is why the story never attempts to engage us emotionally. The characters are limited in their scope and designed to serve the task at hand, which is a light satire of how well-to-do, socially conscious people handle a crisis that risks embarrassing them all. There is little depth here, just choices designed to set-up the next punch-line or bit of business. No romance or male-bonding such as we would find in Barefoot in the Park or The Odd Couple; no coming-of-age such as in Brighton Beach Memoirs; just laughs with no feeling. Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with that, but it does place a huge emphasis on the mechanics of timing and delivery.
The situation in this comedy is a 10th anniversary dinner party at which one of the hosts and all of house staff have mysteriously disappeared and the remaining host, the husband, has been superficially wounded by a gunshot. As the guests arrive, they conspire to hide the circumstance, first from each other and, eventually, from the police. Various calamities result, many of which are hard on the guests: back spasms, burned fingers and temporary deafness are all employed as comic devices to somewhat obvious effect. And there are several instances in which highly implausible explanations are proffered, climaxed by a lengthy, tour de force monologue in which one characters attempts to cover all the absurd ground that has been covered in its entirety.
Rumors is a popular choice for community and high school productions, and while the script is better than many other such staples, it strikes me as minor Neil Simon, closer to one of his screenplays from the 1980s than his seminal work from the 1960s. Haywood had great success last season with a good production of Barefoot in the Park, so it comes as no surprise that they would revisit the venerable playwright, whose prolific body of work is filled with chestnuts worth reviving. I wish I felt more love for this limited comedy, but it too often shows the strain of forced hilarity and may require expert comic actors to make the clockwork mechanics of the piece hum along smoothly enough to hide the fact that the whole thing is a bit rusty and dated.
The cast at Haywood may not be quite that caliber, but they give a good effort. Director George Robert Bailey understands the nuts and bolts required for material like this, and he leads the ten actors through the paces with skill and confidence. Together they make for a tidy and effective ensemble. There is some over-playing here and there, an easy pitfall in farce, where too often screaming is thought to be inherently funny. But, for the most part, there is restraint enough in the playing and a few moments that rise above. It falls to Ric Vaughan to tackle the “Big Lie” monologue, and he handles it with aplomb; while Rick Pauley and Debbie Smith give nice attention to detail in portraying a marriage on the skids.
Farce like this usually requires rapid entrances and exits through multiple doors, which can prove a challenge on a small stage. But the set design – by Karen Cable, Larry Morgan and Linda Ray – is marvelously plotted to accommodate the traffic while allowing room for ten actors onstage together in the final scenes. There is no costume credit, but if the cast handled this chore themselves, they made smart and appropriate choices.
Yet, ultimately, what we are left with in Rumors is a group of well-educated, accomplished professionals resorting to actions that border on idiocy. It may fit the satirical intentions, but Simon is never pointed enough to invite our delight in watching such characters make a series of inane choices. We don’t expect doctors and lawyers and politicians to behave so stupidly (well, politicians maybe), and the specter of social stigmatization is never given enough weight to back up the premise. Still, this production delivers an agreeable reading of the play, with good energy and commitment enough to recommend.

May 10, 11, 17, 18, 24 & 25 @ 8 p.m.
May 12, 19 & 26 @ 2 p.m.

Haywood Theater
115 S. Capitol Ave
Corydon, IN 47112

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