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Upper-Class Twits

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RUMORS

Candlelight's Forum Theatre

EVITA

Candlelight Dinner Playhouse

You know Rumors is going to be farce from the moment you see the set, a living room in an upscale suburban home. The doors tip you off: four on the first floor, three on the landing of the second floor. Mistaken identity and disguised intentions are the stock-in-trade of farce, requiring many frantic, cleverly timed entrances and exits.

First presented on Broadway in 1988, Neil Simon's Rumors represented a conscious shift on the playwright's part. In the previous decade Simon had concentrated on serious, semiautobiographical works, but rather than return to the situation comedy for which he'd been most famous earlier in his career (Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple), he decided to try his hand at farce, a form that demands a great deal of attention to the mechanics of structure and stagecraft. The results are mixed; Rumors never bursts with the sustained manic energy that farce demands, and Simon's preoccupation with managing the ins and outs of the stage action seems to have distracted him from doing what he always did best--produce marvelous one-liners.

So Rumors isn't brilliantly hilarious. It's just very funny.

Set in the elegant residence of a well-heeled New York City deputy mayor (the play was conceived during the scandal-ridden administration of former mayor Ed Koch), Rumors concerns mishaps at a formal dinner party celebrating the politician's tenth wedding anniversary. The politician himself never appears during the play: he's lying upstairs in his bedroom, bleeding from a self-inflicted bullet wound in his earlobe. His distraught attorney, the first to arrive, scampers around trying to hide the potential scandal, which means lying to every new pair of guests who walk through the door--each of whom have their own potential scandals to be concerned about--and finally to a team of cops, those blue-clad upholders of solid righteousness dispatched to control the excesses of the formally dressed aristocrats who dominate the play (class conflict being another hallmark of farce).

Simon got his start writing TV comedy for the likes of Sid Caesar, and at its best Rumors recalls an extended Caesar sketch whose humor derives from the mounting exasperation of the central character and the escalating eccentricities of the people around him. At first the central character in Rumors appears to be Ken Gorman, the lawyer; but partly because of Simon's indecisiveness and partly because of Larry Wyatt's lukewarm intensity in the role, the focus soon shifts to Lenny Ganz, the absent host's accountant, played with perfect restrained anxiety by Larry Brandenburg. Long before the play's delightful climax--a long monologue in which Lenny impersonates the absent host, improvising a perfectly ridiculous explanation to convince the cops that the gunshot was not a suicide attempt--the burly Brandenburg has established himself as the kind of wonderful comic actor who can make whatever he says funny. That's especially true when he's trading zingers with his bitchy, social-climbing wife Claire, nicely played by Nancy Baird.

It is Brandenburg who introduces that other staple of the farce, physical impairment: Lenny suffered whiplash in a car accident on his way to the party. This paves the way for Ken's subsequent deafness, the result of a pistol going off near his head; the sciatic convulsions of Cookie Cusack (Lolly Trauscht), the TV cooking-show hostess who is pressed into service to prepare the evening's meal owing to the mysterious disappearance of both the household staff and the wife whose tenth anniversary is to be celebrated; the burned hand suffered by Cookie's husband, Ernie (Dale Benson, whose tremulous-voice shtick proves intermittently amusing if you haven't heard it a dozen times before); and the bloody nose adulterous politician Glenn Cooper (Howard Platt) gets from his jealous wife, Cassie (Kathryn Jaeck). Naturally the wounded all go to the same doctor--and naturally they all page him, on the very night he's finally obtained high-priced, hard-to-come-by tickets to Phantom of the Opera. ("Who's playing the Phantom tonight?" asks one character, Simon's dig at a mediocre show sustained by the good reviews of its original, long-departed star.)

Phantom tickets are part of a long litany of luxury items Simon mentions as a way of establishing his characters' upper-class status; so are the elegant dresses worn by the women, wives of wealthy men, who discuss their clothes in terms of which gala benefit they bought them for: "Didn't you wear that to muscular dystrophy in June?" "No, emphysema in August." "Emphysema in August" is the kind of wonderful laugh line Simon in top form can deliver--a perfect blend of rhythmic structure and absurd juxtaposition of ideas. He's there about half the time in Rumors, which is more than enough to make this production, directed by William Pullinsi and Larry Wyatt, a fine diversion.

Playing across the hall from Rumors in the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse complex is Evita, whose pervasive cynicism provides an interesting change of pace in a season dominated by Christmas sentimentality. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's opera about how Eva Duarte sleeps her way up the ladder of Argentina's show-biz and political worlds to become first lady of the land is given a solid, harshly humorous staging by director James Harms and choreographer Rudy Hogenmiller; their work, and that of set designer William B. Fosser, costumer Julie Jackson, and the very strong ensemble of singers and dancers, makes the sometimes confusing story much clearer than many other, more innovative and elaborate local productions have done.

Lacking a virtuoso to play Eva, Harms has shrewdly balanced the strengths and limitations of his leading lady, Anne Gunn. Small, sort of mousy, and a little shrill in the demanding music's high end, Gunn makes a very human Eva, one who succeeds not through charisma but through sheer grit. She has strong support from the show's two leading men. As military dictator Juan Peron, Dale Morgan captures both the power that draws Eva to him and the weakness that she exploits. And Kirk Mouser is a dynamic Che Guevara, the student revolutionary-to-be who serves as the story's narrator and commentator; Mouser's virtuosic singing and athletic stage presence offset the unrelenting bitterness of his role, which is vital if he's to engage the audience's sympathy.

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