Rumor Mill

UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre offers a Neil Simon play worth talking about.

Playwright Neil Simon has crafted a few genuinely funny, solid vessels brimming with oil-and-water relationships, but he's also delivered a lot of empty baskets woven from tattered one-liners.

Simon tends to write types, not characters, which is detrimental to serious comedy. But types are more than adequate in an all-out farce, where deep characterization can get in the way of the requisite sharp banter and fast action through ludicrous situations. And so the farce Rumors is that rare thing--a really effective Neil Simon play--and its production by the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre is definitely something to talk about.

Here's the situation: Ken and his wife, Chris, arrive early at a party thrown by New York's deputy mayor and his wife, only to find that the wife and the kitchen staff have disappeared, and the host is lying unconscious upstairs with a bullet hole through his earlobe. It looks like attempted suicide, which is illegal in New York (under the tough Giuliani administration, it was probably punishable by death). So Ken, who is also the host's attorney, is frantic to keep the scandalous situation hidden from the other guests who soon show up: accountant Lenny and his gossipy wife, Claire; psychiatrist Ernie and his wife, cooking-show host Cookie; and state senate hopeful Glenn and his jealous, antagonistic wife, Cassie.

Of course, the truth begins to dribble out--but what is the truth? The host is in no condition to tell, and the hostess is absent. Rumors begin to swirl, and the party descends into panic, confusion and backbiting, as if the Arizona Legislature had just arrived.

The best of many good things about this University of Arizona production is the smart direction by Samantha K. Wyer. Too often, directors think the way to do farce is to send everyone into overdrive: have the actors mug shamelessly when they're not slamming doors and indulging in silly pratfalls. There's nothing wrong with that in moderation, but too many farce directors seem fixated on Oscar Wilde's dictum about everything in moderation, except moderation.

Under Wyer's direction, Rumors is not one of those frantic assaults that bludgeons your skull more than it tickles your funny bone. The emphasis is on verbal humor, not slapstick, and Simon's wisecracks have a chance to clear the proscenium and spear the audience, not slam up against some gratuitous shtick.

This allows, for example, Nathan Gross (as Lenny) to make good use of his blunt, deadpan delivery; it works perfectly here, but would seem to drag things down in a needlessly manic atmosphere. And Julia Tilley as Chris has such room for subtlety that she can get laughs merely by fluffing her hair or gazing longingly at a box of cigarettes.

Similarly, Nat Cassidy as Ken hits just the right notes of desperation without overplaying the part, and later, when his character is temporarily deafened, he moves smartly through a string of hoary routines in which he misunderstands everything people say, without becoming tiresome.

The rest of the ensemble is just as effective, including Kate Del Castillo as the self-absorbed Claire, Bill Epstein as the kindly but beleaguered shrink, Lesley Abrams (the only one who sounds like she's from New York) as a Cookie who'd be down-to-earth if her back weren't crumbling, Spencer Dooley as an image-conscious but surprisingly sympathetic Glenn, Lori Lee Rogers as the spoiled New-Ager Cassie, Gabriel Fonseca as a suspicious but not excessively intimidating cop and Lindsay Fite as his near-silent partner.

Sally Day's set provides the perfectly tony atmosphere, although it may also have something to do with Wyer's reluctance to make her cast slam the many doors: On opening night, a couple of paintings fell off the walls almost before anyone had crossed a threshold. Dress rehearsal and previews must have been brutal.

It may not be enough for people who want their farces hyperactive, but among the rest of us, this production of Rumors deserves good word-of-mouth.

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