Hiding the Host

Review of Rumors, New Haven Theater Company

Neil Simon’s farce Rumors gives the New Haven Theater Company an occasion for formal attire, though it seems a case of all-dressed-up with nowhere to go. Don’t get me wrong: Rumors is a comedy of mature couples and that makes the play a good match for New Haven’s preeminent local acting troupe. Many longtime members find appropriate roles and some former collaborators return to add to the mirth. It’s just a shame that Rumors is far from the sharpest comedy Simon ever wrote.

Everyone is dressed up for a 10th wedding anniversary celebration at the comfortably elegant home of Charlie and Myra Brock. The play calls for a two-story set with stairs to run up and down and several doors to slam. The set itself is a striking assemblage in the NHTC space in the English Building Markets, and it’s not only a prerequisite for the action but almost the star of the show. At any rate, there are no real central characters in the play. It’s an ensemble of dim bulbs circled around an absent host and hostess.

 George Kulp's set design for Rumors at New Haven Theater Company

George Kulp's set design for Rumors at New Haven Theater Company

The situations are farcical, but the ‘rumors’ never really fly. The laughs here revolve around bits like well-heeled characters having to make their own dinner and mix their own drinks; a downstairs bathroom too-often occupied; a deaf gag that never gets silly or surprising enough. We’re asked to accept the premise that damage to someone’s BMW promotes hilarity (well, maybe if it were updated to a Range Rover…). And that’s a sign of the low level of wit Simon foists on us, as references to Trivial Pursuit, to uncertainty about the nationality of Asian help, and loose asides about tarnished gentility mark the play as occupying the flaccid late ‘80s where the boorishness and boredom of these characters might pass muster as “clever fun.”

So what can NHTC do with this? They can all look marvelous, play the thing as though they are in fact old friends (they are), and indulge their celebrated ability to orchestrate busy scenes with lots of overlapped chat. The material doesn’t quite match their capacity to be surprising, as each character mainly just seems to test the others’ patience. I kept hoping that Peter Chenot, who plays Ken Gorman, the guy with the hearing problem, was going to get to do more than react. And J. Kevin Smith, as Lenny Ganz, the man with the busted-up BMW, seems more nonplussed at some of his lines than at the bag of pretzels he can’t open.

The women tend to fare better, if only because they don’t have to bluster so much. Susan Kulp, as Lenny’s wife Claire, gets across plenty of long-suffering bonhomie, and her silent reactions can be devastating. And Jenny Shuck, as Ken’s wife, Chris, plays well the kind of once-bright-eyed-bride who has begun to wilt from her husband’s witlessness. A bit where she repeats him word for word after he gets lost in mid-rant is a high point. Then there’s Margaret Mann, in one helluva outfit, as Cookie Cusack, host of a televised cooking show, who is among the more stalwart, letting her doting husband, Ernie (John Watson), coo at her about her back spasms. Suzanne Powers plays Cassie Cooper, the loose cannon here who, finally fed-up by the philandering of her husband Glenn (Jim Lones), is testing just how testy she can be in public.

There’s plenty of rapid fire gossip early on with Smith playing Lenny as an oafish boor who can’t get over someone belonging to the tennis club simply to have lunch there. Yeah. One has the sense that Simon’s friends acted as models for each of these characters and that they might be tickled to see themselves made fun of. Or not. The “reality check” comes from the idea that, since the host seems to have injured himself, slightly, with a gun, there may have been a suicide attempt and no one wants to have to answer questions from the police, least of all Glenn, who is running for the senate—“state senate,” his wife caustically reminds him lest he start living large.

As Glenn, Jim Lones has the furtive patience and glib charm of a local politician. And John Watson’s Ernie regards the company mostly with tongue firmly in cheek. They can afford to be passive; neither of them are part of the cover-up that fails, and they don’t try to make sense of the silliness the way Ken and Lenny are forced to do.

30594710_10156499975692642_6475086716855123968_n.jpg

It’s all harmless light entertainment, but, as a farce, one might sensibly expect there to be some cats let out of the bag and some dirt swept under the carpet. Not really. No one here has much to be ashamed of, and no one even ends up behind any of the doors in a compromising position. The second half devolves into the parlor game called “what do we tell the police” with Donna E. Glen as a cop having fun at getting some respect from these evasive people who work above her pay grade. But Rumors isn’t a comic whodunit, it’s more of a meandering who-done-what.

Director George Kulp keeps it moving—and there’s a lot of movement and a lot of talk—but if it could go faster we would think about it less, and that would help. The big theatrical pay-off comes in Lenny’s 11th hour, up-against-the-wall, tour de force narrative, pulled out of thin air and hanging together like cobwebs. It’s sketchy and shaky but it’s the best he can do under the circumstances. And I guess this was the best Rumors’ author could do at the time.

Rumours
By Neil Simon
Directed by George Kulp

Cast: Peter Chenot, Donna E. Glen, Matthew Kling, Susan Kulp, Jim Lones, Margaret Mann, Suzanne Powers, Jenny Schuck, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson

Crew: Set Design: George Kulp; Lighting Design: Ian Dunn; Stage Manager: Matthew Kling; Board Ops: David Stagg, Erich Greene

New Haven Theater Company
NHTC Stage @ EBM
839 Chapel Street, New Haven
May 10-12, & 16-19, 2018