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Review

At Lancaster Opera House, a brisk and entertaining 'Rumors'

If you’ll indulge me: I have a fondness for Neil Simon’s “Rumors,” his only farce. The 1988 play skewers a group of elite New York City revelers hanging onto the tail end of that indulgent decade, with gleeful mocking of their shrill entitlement and tastelessness. It’s fun.

My affection for this play goes back 20 years when I acted in a high school production of it. I played Ernie Cusack, the successful therapist who, upon arriving at friends Charlie and Myra’s 10th wedding anniversary party where a scandalous scenario is unfolding,  is thrown into the kitchen to cook dinner. Charlie and Myra’s staff is nowhere to be seen; neither is Myra. Charlie, who is New York City deputy mayor, meanwhile, has shot himself in the earlobe and is resting upstairs. No one knows what’s going on.

It’s a farce, remember, an exaggerated goose chase of superlative actions – pratfalls, mistaken identities, crawling around on the floor – that paints everyone a fool. There's less physical humor in "Rumors" than, say, "Noises Off." This is an intellectual mocking of the rich and powerful; think George Bernard Shaw under a circus tent.

It occurred to me, as I sat down for the Lancaster Opera House’s charming new production of this forgotten Simon gem, that I had never seen the entire play before – and frankly, couldn’t remember much more than the fun of having done it. Memories of intersections, choreography, cues and devilishly funny lines played naively to a mostly obligatory audience of parents and restless siblings. We had fun, anyway.

The wonderful ensemble of "Rumors" brings a wealth of talent to Lancaster Opera House. Pictured standing from left, are Larry Smith (Ernie), Kate Mulberry (Cookie), Emily Yancey (Cassie), Chris Turton (Glenn) and Peter Maier (Ken). Seated, from left, are Lori Panaro (Claire), Marc Ruffino (Lenny) and Lisa Noelle Miller (Chris). (Photo by Gary McBride)

I’m so grateful – and you will be, too – for the fine work being done in this brisk and clever staging. It's not Simon's best-constructed play by far, but it is wonderfully entertaining. This company makes sure of that. There are significant flaws that are hard to move past, though. The first 15 minutes are so overwritten and with a jerky tempo it makes the farcical antics that follow seem somehow less contrived. Its many cultural references don’t date well either, nor do they all play well outside of a specific-enough Manhattan.

More broadly, it’s hard to feel too sympathetic for these fools despite the turmoil they endure (and incur upon themselves). But most troublesome today is the blatant misogyny that many of these male characters casually spew, telling their wives to be quiet and refill their drinks. The women hold their own in other ways however domestically they are very much of a former era.

But you might find, like I did after all these years, that the play also makes sharp statements about privilege and class. Statements that are deeply relevant today. This isn’t the dry and irreverent “Odd Couple” of the 1960s, or this play's sentimental 1990 follow-up, “Lost in Yonkers,” but it’s got Simon’s blue-collar commentary all over it.

Director David Bondrow has a wonderfully cast ensemble to play with here. He draws on their strengths to winning effect, sketching portraits of personalities so gestural they could be mistaken for an editorial cartoon. Lori Panaro and Marc Ruffino are the sharpest duo at this party. As Claire and Lenny, they are deliciously over-the-top, both in sarcastic physicality and eye-rolling wit. They nail the Manhattan-ness of this bunch the best.

Chris Turton and Emily Yancey are similarly juvenile as Glenn and Cassie, at each others’ necks the moment they walk through the door, as if on a soap opera. Their contrast makes for fun eavesdropping. Dylan Brozyna and Emma English are two comparatively normal cops, but that's up for discussion, too. Lisa Noelle Miller and Peter Maier help keep pace as the levelheaded Chris and Ken; Miller’s cynical take on Chris is especially fun.

And as Cookie and Ernie Cusack, the eccentrics of the bunch whom I remember so fondly, Kate Mulberry and Larry Smith are refreshingly real. They’re the least obscene of these movers and shakers; a little weird, maybe, and guilty-by-association as far as friend circles go. But they play along and go on a most unexpected ride, making the most out of an insane story and ridiculous circumstances. They are you and me, in more ways than one.

"Rumors"

★ ★ ★ (out of 4)

Through Sept. 29 at Lancaster Opera House, 21 Central Ave., Lancaster. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays (except 8 p.m. Sept. 20) and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 general, $23 seniors and $15 students (box office, 683-1776, lancasteropera.org).

 

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