When Sir Walter Scott wrote, "Oh, what a tangled web we weave," he was no doubt thinking more military than marital battlefields, but Neil Simon's Rumors, written almost two centuries later in 1988, is still as relevant today in reminding us that, when we first practice to deceive, we still need to be able to keep the story straight.
Rumors is set in the upscale suburban home of Charlie Brock, deputy mayor of New York City, and his wife, Myra, on the occasion of the couple's 10th wedding anniversary. A woman is pacing the living room, muttering to herself and actively avoiding a dip into the cigarette box on the coffee table. Something is not right. Her husband appears on the landing and we learn that they are not hosts but guests; the host has shot himself through one ear lobe. Cue the rumors: Why did Charlie try to kill himself, where is his wife and what has happened to the vanished kitchen staff?
Ken and Chris, the first guests, are lawyers whose first instinct is to concoct a cover story in case a concerned neighbor calls the police. Over the course of the next hour, as the other three couples arrive, the cover stories and associated rumors get ever-more convoluted. To add to the chaos and confusion, Lennie (Charlie's accountant) and his wife Claire have been in a car accident and Lennie has a whiplash. Ernie, an analyst (how very 1980s New York!), has forgotten he's supposed to be leading a group phone therapy session, and his wife Cookie has put her back out. Finally, would-be state senator Glenn and his wife Cassie arrive in the midst of an apparently never-ending argument about mutual respect (and possible infidelity).
At the end of Act I, everything comes to an explosive head (with associated deafness), setting the scene for less joke-a-minute delivery but in many ways more entertaining comedy in Act II. Cue exasperated police officers, more cover stories and phone calls from a mystery woman. As the evening winds down, the still-unseen Charlie announces over the intercom that he's ready to tell the truth. But is he? And who — or what — might stop him?
While Rumors is far from Simon's best writing, director Gene Cole moves the play along at a cracking pace and the cast for the most part does a fine job keeping up. Amanda Slinkard impresses in her NCRT debut as the progressively tipsier Chris working her way through a bottle of vodka. Matt Cole (Ken) gets the most laughs as he struggles to converse through temporary deafness while wearing a fetching pale blue towel turban. As Lennie and Claire, Arnold Waddell and Shelley Stewart, both familiar NCRT players, are dressed as a matching pair (he in black suit with a red tie, she in a red dress with black accessories), and the two play well off each other, easily overcoming a few flubbed lines.
Toodie Boll is entertaining as Cookie, but a busy acting year has put her in danger of being recognized more as herself than as the character she's playing. John Veit (Ernie) has yet to settle into his role and the overly obvious addition of a pipe hardly helps; it will be interesting to see how his performance evolves as the run continues. Caroline McFarland shows great comedic timing as the crystal-obsessed Cassie, but Saúl Tellez (Glenn) appears more of a would-be gangster than a would-be politician. Rounding out the cast are James Wright and Alyssa Navarrete as the convincingly long-suffering police officers who eventually give up trying to tell fact from fiction and do their best to leave before the truth finally comes out.
Liz Uhazy's set seems a little below the standards of decor one might expect a home that employs cooking staff, with a coat tree in the living room and the guests eating dinner while perched on mismatched loveseats, but the mezzanine space in back effectively conveys the idea a second story without actually building one.
Rumors is more about the chaos that comes from excessively creative storytelling than the actual rumors, which function mostly as a device to link otherwise disconnected — and absent — characters. The play was Simon's first attempt at a farce and, truth be told, it's more extended sitcom than classic farce. But friendship is an enduring theme in his work and, at the end of the day, Rumors is about the lengths Charlie's friends will go to in order to protect him. Niceties of definition aside, it's an entertaining piece that remains relevant today in its almost perfect illustration of how quickly pandemonium can take over after an innocent cover-up is begun.
Rumors plays at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Oct. 10 and on Thursday, Oct. 8, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on Sept. 27 and Oct. 4. For tickets and information call 442-6278 or visit www.ncrt.net.
Boeing Boeing opens Thursday, Oct. 8 at Ferndale Repertory Theatre and runs through Oct. 25 with the comic trials and tribulations of a 1960s playboy pilot juggling three flight attendant girlfriends. For more information, call 786-5483 or go to www.ferndalerep.org.