Rumors was American dramatist Neil Simon’s first foray into farce, so any sophomoric banter is to be forgiven in what remains a sparkling 1980s period piece. And The Little Theatre of Alexandria’s gutsy production, while not airtight on opening night, captures enough mischief and mayhem to make returning to live, in-person theater worth it.
Embrace that thought a sec. When’s the last time you gathered with a hundred or so strangers in the dark and surrendered to communal fantasy?
The Little Theatre makes it safe and easy. Patrons sit in parties separated by cardboard cutouts (guaranteed purse chair for the ladies!). Masks must be worn for the duration of the show. Rather than reminding folks to silence their phones, an announcement warns that if an audience member removes their mask, they will be asked to put it back on. If they misbehave again, the show pauses. If they fail to comply, the show will be canceled.
Upon hearing this, an audible gasp burst through the audience’s face coverings Saturday night. The consensus: The show must go on, even without concessions or functional water fountains. It was a sort of sound check to make sure the laughter could also permeate the room.
LTA’s merry production — featuring six couples (one unseen and one a pair of patrolling cops), five doors, and seven injuries — is a makeup from the Little Theatre’s 2020 season. Like many shows, it was canceled when pandemic lockdowns were ushered in. Director Matthew Randall’s solution was to regroup with actors who had relationships in real life and already shared rehearsal bubbles.
That intimacy suits the play’s sketchy plot: Deputy Mayor Charley of tony Palisades, New York, throws a 10th-anniversary soiree, but he and his wife, Myra, fail to make an appearance. Well-heeled guests stagger in two-by-two, in a parade of couples therapy.
Sexism drips from the page in that the males of each pair represent henchmen in Charley’s life: His lawyer, Ken Gorman (though wife Chris also practices law, while practicing not smoking and indulging in heavy drinking); his investment broker/accountant, forked-tongued Lenny; his intuitive analyst, Ernie; and fellow politician Glenn Cooper, a social climber running for state Senate. The Gormans arrive first, overhear a gunshot, find Charley bleeding and incoherent, discover Myra and the domestic help are gone and no food prepared … and the cover-up and comedic cross talk ensue.
Because so much of the action happens behind closed doors — a bedroom “crime” scene, a hellish kitchen, a “take this outside” driveway, and a freakishly overused powder room — set design is the Jenga test for this house of cards crawling with jokers and queens. Set Designer/Decorator Charles Dragonette fulfills the assignment brilliantly with a posh, stately blue drawing room, appointed in fauteuil chairs and eclectic art. Leaning on the talents of Julie Fischer and Dan Remmers (co-set construction), he balances, stage left, a grand front door, framed in beveled glass, with, stage right, a grander keystone archway leading to the kitchen. The center-stage staircase is the main event — compact and efficient, not too tall, so no one needs to crane their neck to follow the whiplash action. It’s perfect for both tableau and cardio, as the couples get a workout acting out the ups and downs of married life.
The pair with the most chemistry, and hands down the most at home on stage, are the howlingly funny Mike Donahue and his grand dame of sarcasm, Jayne L. Victor (Lenny and Claire Ganz). They’re so natural, even their clothes seem unlike costumes — he, in a distinguished smoking jacket; she, in a blood-red shimmery sequined sheath. Together they channel the wit and wits of Neil Simon. Either they have the best lines or simply know best how to deliver them. Whether Donahue is wrestling with pretzels or Victor sagaciously slinging zingers, they show flawless timing and truth.
Otherwise, Director Randall has cause to issue timeouts. The pacing Saturday was languid and pedantic in places — unbefitting a farce — which left some patrons dispirited.
Another sour note: that deafening doorbell. With so many comings and goings, the audience was sentenced to sit through Big Ben chimes each time someone rang. By contrast, gunshots were barely discernible. Although Sound Designer Alan Wray proves an agile deejay, streaming mid-’80s-era hits that hit the show’s themes (“Secret Lovers,” “That’s What Friends Are For,” “A Matter of Trust,” “The Sweetest Taboo,” “Careless Whisper,” “Little Lies” by Fleetwood Mac — thankfully, not from the Rumours album), and nails the crackle of the cops’ walkie-talkies, syncs various phone features, and ensures the clarity of crisp dialogue, that tolling bell is a death knell for the script’s rhythm. No wonder Ken Gorman (Mike Rudden) temporarily goes deaf.
Another possible handicap on opening night could have been insufficient feedback from a fully masked and thirsty audience. Watching Chris Gorman (a plucky, zany Stephanie Chu Rudden) empty the Mad Men–style drink cart only made the lack of refreshments more maddening. To the ensemble, did we seem as dry as our cardboard seat dividers?
Among bright spots are Janice Rivera as kooky Cookie Cusack, wife of the analyst. Cookie hosts a cooking show and arrives with her own cushion because of an aching back from producing 37 meals a week, then gets recruited to cook dinner. (And that’s how the Cookie crumples!) Rivera plays this fruitcake to the hilt, with help showing off her Russian heritage from Costume Designer Judy Whelihan, who overlays a peasant sarafan with a boho tapestry, adding embroidery and jewels and topping it off with a tiara. The look alone is hilarious.
Such cartoonishness abounds. Candidate Cooper’s trophy wife, Cassie, played by a statuesque but stilted Roxanne Waite, showcases the mad genius of Rebecca Harris (hair and wig design). Waite’s electric-red updo takes a shocking turn as the flying rumors entangle and strangle her.
There are some head-scratchers in the script. Notably: Why would a beat cop not recognize the deputy mayor of his own city? The ballsy Claire sums things up, muttering how she needs a bookmark for her brain.
Shedding some light is yet another couple, Lighting Designers Ken and Patti Crowley, who bathe the proceedings in ominous headlights and moonlight.
But I must shine the spotlight on the gem of the evening: sidekick Officer Connie Pudney. In what’s typically a bit part and mostly silent, Eileen Copas first commands attention with her tough-gal, nose-wipin’, gum-crackin’ cop stance. Then her character unfolds with comic fluidity and thrilling precision. She’s not a scene hog by any stretch, but her keen physicality and reactions during Lenny’s climactic, over-the-top monologue provide the subtext and connection that any audience craves.
Rumors is one of just a handful of Simon’s 30-odd plays that were not adapted for film or television, so it serves up a freshness and host of surprises for most audiences coming in cold. The Little Theatre of Alexandria imbues this enduring parlor game with warmth and wackiness — and a solid reason to escape your Zoom gloom and return to the theater. But BYOB (bring your own bottled water).
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with a 10-minute intermission