By 1988, Neil Simon had won two Tony Awards for best play and finished the autobiographical trilogy that established him as a master of serious dramas, as well as glittering comedies. There seemed to be nothing he couldn’t do as a playwright, so he indulged a whim: He wrote, for the first time in his career, a true farce.
He never did it again, and if you see Davidson Community Players’ slam-bang production of “Rumors,” you will find out why: He didn’t know how.
The 1980s produced some dazzling farces, from Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off” to Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me a Tenor.” But Simon’s doesn’t play by the rules of the genre or play to his own strengths. So, however well director Mark Sutch and his ardent cast do their jobs, the script holds them back.
The set-up has promise: Eight dinner guests show up for the 10th anniversary party of the deputy mayor of New York and his wife. Food sits in the kitchen, uncooked. The maid and butler have vanished. The hostess is gone. The host, slap-happy from multiple Valiums and bleeding from a bullet wound to his earlobe, lies helplessly in his bedroom.
Four of his friends – his attorney, his accountant, his analyst and one of his political cronies – and their wives troop in two by two, hoping to figure out what happened and concoct a plausible, scandal-free story for the outside world. Late in the play, the police finally come by to investigate.
Three things have to happen for a farce to work, and none of them do in Simon’s hands.
First, each event has to be plausible; humor comes from the bizarre piling up of events in a crazy pattern. That goes out the window when the police don’t respond to gunshots in a wealthy neighborhood for nearly an hour and a half.
Second, a final payoff must answer our questions and settle events for all concerned. That never happens here.
Third, there has to be a sense of desperation: Lives must be about to unravel if the cover-up doesn’t work. But you or I could rig up a simple story in 60 seconds: The deputy mayor tripped chasing a presumed burglar, and the gun went off next to his ear. So Simon’s byzantine series of plot twists turns out to be irrelevant.
“Rumors” has funny one-liners, and some of the complications (including a sudden spurt of “La Bamba”) inspire loud laughter. But Simon does best when wringing humor from personal relationships, and those don’t count for much in farce; that may explain why the men are variations on the same verbal, rich white guy.
Luckily, Sutch and the eight leads know what’s required: nervous energy, vocal speed and nimbleness, and a constant sense of physical movement.
This they deliver so vividly that we never stop to wonder why we can’t believe what we’re seeing. Philip Robertson and Cat Rutledge do an especially good job of setting the frenzied tone, as the lawyer and wife who are first on the scene. (He even pulls off trite misunderstandings that result from his temporary deafness.)
The show is meant to be an ensemble right up to the finale, which depends on a wild, improvised monologue by the accountant. Matt Merrell, the Players’ executive director, nailed it with such zany exuberance that he carried the play aloft – before Simon dropped it back to Earth with one last clunky gag.