Theater should master a universe, create worlds in unlikely places, transport its audience to a specific elsewhere. A production, a play, a performance—all should make something where there was nothing, out of thin air, as it were.
UM’s Rumors, which opened Tuesday and runs through next week in the Masquer Theatre, is Neil Simon’s farce of upper-class manners, or lack of manners, set in a wealthy suburb of New York, among four long-married couples who have gathered for an anniversary party at the house of friends.
While Matt Greseth’s cast executes his nimble direction swiftly (and speed counts for almost everything in farce), never sacrificing sense, the cast members simply cannot overcome the production’s general naïveté as to the world it hopes to conjure.
The set spans the width and fills the corners of the Masquer’s stage in a way I haven’t seen it used before, with a formal foyer, a big, sunken living room, a floating staircase, a balcony and a wet bar; it’s always bracing to see a familiar space reinvented. But the interior decor and the art on the walls are neutral to the point of being hotel-lobby plain, while these are rich people who would trumpet their tastes. Neither do the costumes seem right as the clothes of charity-gala-going New Yorkers; they look like clothes from the mall hung on people who shop couture. The characters all drive luxury cars—BMWs, Audis—yet I had trouble believing the actors had ever sat in one. University productions can usually be counted on for design sophistication and scenic excellence, but Rumors is an exception.
Details of costume and scenery are of particular importance in Rumors because without them we must focus entirely on the play, and it is Simon’s worst: a tortured rush of unfunny half-liners, a play which depends on rhyming names together for laughs, and not just one laugh, but lots of laughs. Or how about this for an endless joke: Ken, momentarily deprived of his hearing after the report of a gunshot, responds to questions getting just a word wrong.
Question: “What time is it?”
Answer: [shouting] “Why do you need a dime?”
Move over, Sprint commercials! Is it unreasonable of us to demand more of the writer who inve-nted The Odd Couple and The Out-of-Towners? This comedy is beneath him and it shows. It’s tossed off, unimpressive and stale, even dated. The characters are all fairly awful, spoiled, self-interested luxury whores who gossip about tennis-club politics. Simon never cares to make them sympathetic, so they are left to bray and force funniness out of themselves.
The marriages depicted—and this is a play about marriage if it is about anything—have a nasty, labored feel to them, each one repugnant in its own way and each one defined by a controlling man and a bitchy or manipulative woman. Len and Claire, apparently, are on the rocks, which we learn only in the play’s final moments when suddenly he’s wooing her, and she softens toward him. But up until that point, their marriage, in its competitive bickering and ho-hum humiliation, is exactly like the other three marriages on the stage, and the cast, forced to make something out of this, resorts to fluttery cartoon motion and, yes, more shouting.
We are meant to be distracted, perhaps, by the noise and chaos, as well as the confused situation. But does Simon have any transformation in mind for these people, any lesson to teach his audience on what to do or not to do? The sweet humanity that underwrites most of his comedy, and his fine, fond eye for the ways of youth (specifically his youth) are not in evidence here. Whatever gift he has for memory and reflection is sadly absent in his inability to comment perceptively on his contemporaries. “Can you believe we actually married these men?” asks one of the wives late in the second act, and I’m thinking, “Why is this the first time you’ve bothered to ask yourself this question?”
Watching Rumors, I feel that I’m watching a trifle Simon put together to delight the actual people on whom it’s based—a sort of court-requested effort. The bewildering success of Rumors always depended on Simon’s career, not on the material.
Greseth has a keen sense of timing, blessedly, and the frenzy builds on stage with gratifying speed, never crashing into a muddled heap. But there is far too much shouting and door-slamming, and then Simon gives Ken that hearing problem which means he really has to shout on top of the shouting he’s already doing. The actors are clear and distinct and do their best with what they have. Through no fault of their own, none of them conveys anything remo-tely urban, which adds to the feeling of dress-up and pretend. They are almost all good actors, just poorly cast. If Rumors is funny, it is funny in a post-Borscht Belt, Jewish sort of way—a chummy kvetching, a good-natured whining. It is impossible to believe that anyone connected with the production understands this sensibility, but the blame lies principally with Simon, who never comes up with more than a single dimension. As an irritable junior politician, Justin Bates has some grit, and Nathaniel Peterson never fails to bring manic energy to his roles. At the final dress rehearsal, he already had mastered his climactic five-minute speech and can be credited, at least, with closing the show with a flourish.
Rumors runs March 13—15 and March 18—22 at 7:30 p.m. in the Masquer Theatre of the UM PAR/TV Center. Tickets are $11 general, $10 students and seniors. Call 243-4581 for more information.