The upper crust gets kidded in Neil Simon’s farcical whodunit Rumors at Cortland Rep
It's the only Neil Simon set that calls for six doors, all slamming. In 1988 the gagmeister had been America’s favorite comic playwright for nearly three decades and was coming off the late-in-life success of the three heartfelt, more ambitious “BB” autobiographical dramas, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound. This was time to try something new. Inspired by the then-recent success of items like Michael Frayn’s Noises Off and Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular, Simon produced his only tribute to the breathless antics of Georges Feydeau and Ray Cooney. Rumors is his one real farce, so jam down the accelerator, and get ready to upturn pompous presumption for this season opener at Cortland Repertory Theatre, The date has to remain in 1988 because advancing telephone technology has undercut Simon’s reliance on a single phone with a wire attached. If eight upper-class suburbanites are really going to blow their collective dignity into confetti, we need massive miscommunication. First, they should not know what is going on; second, they should lie about their confusion; and third, they should be caught. The cell phone comes with its own toxins and snares, as recent news stories have shown, but it would be death to the kind of farce Simon is raising here.
Jason Bolen’s posh set (with the half-dozen doors) tells us we’re somewhere in affluent Westchester County, with Tarrytown not far off. In a tack that sounds almost like Agatha Christie, formally dressed guests have been invited to a 10th anniversary party at which the hosts are never seen. No food or drink has been prepared. Wife Myra is inexplicably “away.” Husband Charlie lies offstage, suffering from a gunshot wound, apparently selfinflicted. The horrified guest Ken Gorman exclaims, “He’s bleeding like crazy, all over the room! I don’t know why people decorate in white.”
It’s a good gag, worthy of Simon in his prime, but it’s also a signal of the edge the playwright takes here that he has lacked elsewhere. We know about his roots in workingclass Brighton Beach, but now we’re among the ambitious toffs who brag about where they went to college (Penn and Johns Hopkins). These are people who fret about appearances, and excellent appearances they are. The women are trophy-gorgeous and chic, thanks to costumes designed by Jimmy Johansmeyer. Even the defiantly out-of-step Cookie Cusack, who shows up in a 50-year-old dress inherited from a Russian grandmother, still cares about looks.
In some cases it’s mere vanity and in others it’s driving ambition. With each of the four couples there is far more anxiety about having been discovered at an event so sensational and distasteful than there is in solving the puzzle of how these things have come to pass. Like creatures in a medieval morality drama, each character embodies failings Simon perceives in the most privileged classes. Those first on the scene, Ken (Sean Riley) and Chris Gorman (Melissa Macleod Herion), are the most insecure, given to fantasizing explanations for the inexplicable. Nicotine craving also drives the redhaired porcelain-skinned Chris. She growls, “I’m so desperate for a smoke I tried to light up a Q-Tip.”
Next to arrive are the vain and bitchy couple, Lenny (Nicholas Wilder) and Claire Ganz (Amy Desiato). Lenny’s proud possession of a new BMW is dissipated by the fact that he smashed it on the way to the party, leaving his head now painfully askew. Meanwhile, Claire’s acid tongue may make her a difficult life’s companion or party guest, but the reliability of her put-downs gives her a fair share of zingers. On the host Charlie’s reputation for peerless constancy before temptation, “He may not be looking at her, but he’s screwing her.”
The Cusacks, self-important psychiatrist Ernie (Colin Wasmund) and cooking-show hostess wife Cookie (Erica Livingston), arrive next, both cursed with terminal cluelessness. As a man of science, Ernie portentously announces his explanations of how the company got into the current pickle, only he’s so off-base it’s hard to answer him. As the bearer of the 50-year-old Russian dress, Cookie has a genius for taking the wrong cue. Simon does her dirty, though, by sticking her with the worst gag of the evening, about earrings thought lost that still lie in her hands.
Director Kerby Thompson saves his best-known player, Dustin Charles, for the ambitious and morally ambiguous politician, Glen Cooper, who comes in last. Charles is both a company favorite and a multiple Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Award nominee. He may have the itch for power, but Simon makes him small-time by having skeptics remind us that when he says he’s aiming for the Senate it’s really the state Senate. Following this, wife Cassie Cooper (Jackie Washam) slams the winter weather in Albany. While all the wives are glamorous, eye-candy Cassie has the starlet visual appeal of a campaign asset. That doesn’t mean Simon can’t have fun with her. Cassie is taken with the then-current craze for giant crystals (spiritually consoling) and blows what cool remains to her when she accidentally flushes the rock down the toilet.
Eight players are a lot to keep in the air, especially when two other characters are about to arrive. Simon has inserted gags about how they might be confused, such as having six with the same initial on their family names or three of the men having names that rhyme: Ken, Len and Glen. Thompson’s casting choices appear to guide the eyes of the careless with a kind of color-coding: only one redhead wife, only one dark brunette, as well as the husbands, only one balding, one with a beard, and so on.
As with any farce, you can’t expect to solve the whodunit or reach a conclusion, but matters are forced to a climax when the cops arrive. Exasperated officers Welch (Danny Blaylock) and Pudney (Jamilla Fort) have seen plenty of nonsense already and would like a reasonable explanation so they can go home. This means they’re going to get an unreasonable explanation. It’s from stiffnecked Lenny, reduced to his underwear, with a madcap recitation of everything we’ve just seen, lunatic as it sounds, with some invented embellishments.
The original Rumors won a handful of Tonys and ran for a year and has been produced twice previously on the Syracuse New Times beat, including a May 1997 Talent Company mounting. It’s never been a constant revival like The Odd Couple or even Plaza Suite for the obvious reason that it’s damned hard to pull off. Yet Cortland Repertory’s artistic director Thompson has specialized in exactly the right timing over recent summers. He knows just when the doors slam.
This production runs through Saturday, June 18. See Times Table for information.