Who doesn’t love a juicy piece of gossip? True or not, the candid tale of another’s business is at least entertaining, even for those who don’t admit to wanting to listen. To be “in the know” is just as basic a need for humans as the ache for food and the thirst for drink. From jealous lovers to prying friends, when the prospect of a hidden truth about a friend, foe or acquaintance is presented, humans become nothing more than dogs chasing cars. Well, as long as said person isn’t at the center of gossip—and if so, well, it then becomes more the fox trying to outrun the dogs. I personally always have been a fan of Olympia Dukakis’ motto from “Steel Magnolias”: “If you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me!”
Last weekend Thalian Association let the cat out of the bag with their production of Neil Simon’s “Rumors.” The fast-paced farce is having a run as quick as its wit at Scottish Rite Temple on 17th Street. It wraps on the 24th—which is a real shame because for a show that creates this much laughter, it needs ample opportunity to reach audiences. Under the masterful near unmatched skills of director Robb Mann, Thalian Association has scored the first big side-splitting comedy of 2019 theatre.
When entering Scottish Rite, the audience is met with the massive sitting room of Charlie Brock, deputy mayor of New York. It’s his 10-year anniversary, and he and his wife are hosting a high-society shindig for all their friends. Instead of a fun evening of booze and buddies, the night gets turned into an unnerving and never-ending spin of yarn to protect each of their high-standing reputations … and then (gasp!) scandal erupts!
“Rumors” kicks off with the controlled mania of Ken and Chris Gorman (Jim Bowling and Elizabeth Michaels), who are the first to arrive to the upper class soiree and the first to cover up the theorized suicide attempt by good ol’ Charlie. Michaels’ flightiness and ever-growing want for a smoke is palpable as the stress begins to get to her.
Bowling once again commands the stage, and shapes Ken into an authority figure whom no one listens to. Changing the pitch of his voice to convey his own growing anxiety and frustrations at the panic before him creates some hilarious moments and shows just how rich Simon’s dialogue can be. When he’s finally calmed, his nerves are hidden with a Valium, a gleeful smile and a childlike giggle. It leaves audiences laughing throughout the play.
Joining the fray next are the Ganzes, Lenny and Clair (Kenny Rosander and Maggie Miller). The height difference is a funny enough sight gag, but to rest on that would be lazy; the actors certainly are not. Miller brings a privileged air to Clair, as someone who finds a sick joy fro pulling the pin and tossing the grenade. Still, Miller finds a way to make her funnier than sinister.
Rosander (MVP) from the moment he steps on stage is present in the show, the moment, and with his co-stars. Between a consistent whiplash-pained neck to the manic energy he unleashes for the marathon monologue at the show’s climax, he really disappears into his role. It’s top-notch work.
Anna Gamel gives the wide-eyed kooky TV cook, Cookie Cusack, humorous, animated life. She shows off a solid understanding of both physical comedy and timing to create a perfect human/cartoon hybird. Between her back constantly going out and a mint comedic wail, the performance brings to mind Lucille Austero from “Arrested Development.”
Her hubby Erine (Nick Williams)—the cool, calm phycologist—scores a few laughs when he finally snaps and lets loose his normal reserved nature at the other guests. Though those moments are few and far between, Williams sometimes disappears into the background.
Arriving last to the party are the Coopers, Glenn and Cassie (Bradly Coxe and Vanessa Welch)—upper-crust friends of this white-bread society. It seems while the group is trying to save their good buddy Charlie, Glenn is more focused on keeping his nose clean as he bids for state senator and dodges punches from his new wave firecracker of a wife. It is my the favorite role so far for Coxe; he brings a smooth smile and a silver tongue to Glenn, whose attempts to spin the situation often blow up in his face.
Vanessa Welch is in complete ownership of her role. Every time she appears on stage with her hell-hath-no-fury smile, the audience will be hot with a sense of “here comes trouble.”
The eight leads (yes, eight—this is a very well-balanced ensemble) truly creates a caring batch of affluent friends who I, for one, could watch continuously as an adventurous sitcom.
The world they live in is as engaging. Lance Howell has built another successful set, washed in an odd mix of peach and coral colors. It would serve better with a traditional ‘80s setting than the ‘90s one for this version. That said, the design spans out vertically and horizontally, and takes up all available space the stage has to offer. It is detailed to the nines, so the status of those who live there are on display with simple set dressing. A crystal ash tray lets us know all we need about the cast of characters. A real shoulder radio is used on stage by one of the two cop characters, which really stood out to add to the reality.
With five functioning doors, when the play hits its full comedic speed, it easily begins to resemble a classic gag from “Scooby-Doo,” as all characters are bolting from room to room and appearing everywhere. The show’s blocking is well thought-out; what could have been a chaotic mess is instead a frantic choreography, another example of the keen eye Mann brings to Simon’s comedy.
The sound design by John DeVeaux is fine and all the cast can be heard properly. Never once does audio drop out or become staticky. Still much like the lighting design, sound plays it safe; each equals to just functioning instead of enriching.
When considering Neil Simon’s works, tech aspects usually aren’t top-of-mind. His plays are known for its cast bonding into a well-oiled machine, in order to tackle such quippy banter. Thalian’s cast solidifies the bond, and each knows when to let the other have the stage, so it creates a well-balanced ensemble. The play works very well in shaping a world where the zany is casual and the absurd is rational. And we the audience buy into it from the start and go along for the entire ride.