Wildly entertaining comic performances in ‘Rumors’ at Rooftop Productions

The Neil Simon comedy is a wonderfully acted fable of bad intentions gone bad, with fast-talking characters and subtle insight as a cherry on top.

Neil Simon is one of Broadway’s greatest playwrights — but that doesn’t mean his writing does the actor’s work for them. His writing can even be something of an acquired taste. But Rooftop Productions at the ARTfactory succeeds in executing his subtle, winking material in Rumors. Simon’s work often focuses on subtle social oddities and phenomena that dominate our lives whether we realize it or not. Under Charlynn Mills’ direction, the Rooftop Productions cast has made this frequently comedically dense script fuel a wildly entertaining, frequently laugh-out-loud night at the theater.

Rumors, which debuted in 1988 and made it to Broadway, showcases a group of well-to-do New York City socialites who learn that their mutual friend, Charley Brock — who is also the Deputy Mayor of New York — has shot himself in an apparent suicide attempt right before his 10th-anniversary party. His friends, knowing the political implications for Charlie if the news got out, pull out every conceivable stop to keep it quiet, including running the risk of ruining their own lives in the process.

Standing: Ernie (Bob Thompson), Cookie (Deb Hansen); sitting: Lenny (Kieran Cross) and Claire (Pam Gordet), in ‘Rumors.’ Photo by Kimberly Kemp.Standing: Ernie (Bob Thompson), Cookie (Deb Hansen); sitting: Lenny (Kieran Cross) and Claire (Pam Gordet), in ‘Rumors.’ Photo by Kimberly Kemp.

Neil Simon’s humor has no laugh track — it doesn’t tell you when to laugh, but it’s all the better for it. In a way, then, Simon is Plato’s Form of a satirist: he holds up a realistic version of our reality to consider by centering revealing conversations rather than punchlines. He shows us ourselves not through as many jokes as other comic writers, but more so our actual lives. While this approach often makes for even more satisfying comedy, it can be hard to perform Simon’s work with coherent comedic beats; but overall, Rooftop Productions has excelled.

Core to the script’s subtleties’ successful execution are excellent performances, and this production boasts numerous gems. Kieran Cross excels as Lenny Ganz, who steals the show comedically throughout. His one-liners and many-liners alike frequently supply the show’s comedic fodder, and in droves. His character is one of the most interesting as well as the most entertaining: the character is a little sexist and a lot a neurotic Looney Tunes character, making for commentary on how our real selves come out when we’re stressed, usually for the worst, while also giving us guffaw-worthy physical antics and witticisms throughout the show. Cross is an incredible performer: not once does it sound like he’s reading a line, and when the character is improvising, I believe that Cross is too. If “subtlety” in comedy isn’t your thing, know that Cross dips into the Jim Carrey side of the comedic pond and the show is better for it.

As Officer Welch, Meighan Hogate is a deadpan, exhausted laugh riot whose reaction to Cross’s tour-de-force alibi and the cast’s antics as a whole makes for an all-around fantastic climax to the show. It’s always a relief when the straight man is also funny, and Hogate delivers.

Another notable performance of the night is David Glen Moore as Glenn Cooper, the long-suffering husband of a diva we love to hate played by Eileen Marshall, Cassie Cooper, who’s bent on one-upping Glenn at every turn. While Moore’s performance and program bio saying he “loves learning and new experiences” suggest he might not have as much acting experience as others in the cast, his everymanness actually makes his performance one of the most endearing and funny in the production. Glenn’s just a guy in a loveless marriage doing his best to keep the peace, while his wife makes their dirty laundry their friends’ business — specifically by flirting with them by sitting in their laps to get back at Glenn for something he didn’t do. Meanwhile, there’s also suicide to cover up. Moore’s performance’s ordinariness and lack of polish actually, genuinely, helps bring out the humor and meaning of Glenn’s situation. Poor Glenn.

TOP: Chris (Kellie Honey), Cassie (Eileen Marshall), and Cookie (Deb Hansen); ABOVE: Glenn (David Moore), Ernie (Bob Thompson), Ken (Cameron McBride), and Claire ((Pam Gordet), in ‘Rumors.’ Photos by Kimberly Kemp.

In Vincent Worthington’s set design constructed by him, Reilly Cooper, and Tori Elswick, elegant white wall backdrops are patterned with a darkish texture, suggesting the messiness and murk behind the elegance of these socialites. The walls’ collection of floral paintings, perhaps accidentally, do the same: one isn’t in a frame. Franklin Coleman’s light design, particularly his way of showing a car’s arrival through the apartment set’s glass doors, is impressively realistic and well-executed.

When the show falters, it comes down to the script moving slowly in the first act. When the characters’ foibles and their narrative significance are revealed, it feels very much like exposition, and sometimes the performances are less subtle in pursuit of introducing a character’s “‘whole thing” to the audience. Sometimes this is unavoidable, but with a two-hour runtime and so much subtlety elsewhere in the play, there is enough time and space to show who these characters are as if they were real people, per Neil Simon’s shtick. But any issues with this are minor, and any skepticism I had at intermission was easily compensated for by the rollicking, phenomenally acted second act of the show.

Rooftop Productions’ Rumors is a wonderfully acted fable of sorts of bad intentions gone bad, with fast-talking characters and subtle insight as a cherry on top. Rumors feels like a fantastic example of entertainment with a message that puts entertainment first. It uses the message to make the entertainment more convincing, not the other way around, in doing so conveying the message more realistically and persuasively. In this way, this production sets out to achieve exactly what Neil Simon was most likely hoping for.

Running Time: Approximately two hours with one 15-minute intermission.

Rumors plays through June 23, 2024 (Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2 PM), presented by Rooftop Productions performing in the Wind River Chimes Theater (3rd floor) at the ARTFactory, 9419 Battle Street, Manassas, VA. Tickets ($20–$30) are available online or through the box office at 703-330-2787, Monday to Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm.

The program for Rumors is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks optional.


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