As the weather warms and the snow is finally disappearing (can it be true?!), that means that theatre seasons in Greater Grand Forks are also heading towards their inevitable end in preparation for the summer migration – where all manner of folk head just a little bit south and a little bit east and become “lake people.” And following a wonderfully rich season that included Three Days of Rain, musical extravaganza A Chorus Line, and tear-jerker The Shadow Box, UND is closing out their season with a glamorously bedazzled farce by comedy master Neil Simon called Rumors. And Rumors it is fittingly called, as a series of guests at a dinner party try to keep themselves together while keeping the lid on a brewing scandal, all while speculating and digging the dirt amongst themselves as the night progresses.
When the lights come up, Chris Gorman (Emily Wirkus) is waiting for a call from Dr. Dudley, soon revealing that Charley, the host of tonight’s anniversary gathering, has shot himself. Chris’s husband Ken (Matt Trujillo) is upstairs tending to him, trying to find out what happened and discern where Myra, Charley’s wife, has gone. Soon more friends start arriving including Claire and Lenny Ganz (Jacqueline DeGraff and Zack Lee) who have just been in an accident in their brand new BMW, analyst Ernie Cusack and his cooking-show-host wife Cookie (Joe Bussey and Daniella Lima), and the sniping and ambitious Coopers, Cassie and Glenn (Jackie O’Neil and Patrick Kloeckner). The action is decidedly slapstick as everyone throughout the night develops some illness, injury, or aggravation whether induced by self or situation, and no one gets any closer to finding out what has really happened between Charley and Myra.
Those who are familiar with Simon’s other works like The Odd Couple, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and Lost in Yonkers won’t find the same depth behind the humor in this show as demonstrated in his other works, but it is nonetheless an entertaining little confection with plenty of verbal fireworks, explosive antics, and ridiculousness to keep the audience entertained until the curtain falls. The constant running up and down stairs and slamming of doors, and the guests’ assorted ailments and predicaments, all work together to push the show towards the realm of camp, and many of the cast play into this, developing almost cartoonish characterizations as the show progresses, but overall the show never gets tiresome and by the time the cops arrive (in the form of Brandon Wetch as Officer Welch and Hannah Diers as Officer Pudney) to investigate the evening’s shenanigans, the audience will have mostly forgotten about the absent hosts as they are far too caught up in the eccentricities of the assembled motley crew.
If there is any deeper subtext to be found, it’s in the shows title: Rumors are of great concern to all of the gathered guests, but their concern for the reputation of the “dear friends” Charley and Myra doesn’t stop them from hashing out all of the dirty laundry they’ve picked up at social clubs and tennis courts around town. The potential for political scandal is also present: Charley is the Deputy Mayor of New York and Glenn has his eyes on the state Senate. For many of the guests, their concern for Charley and Myra is only a thinly veiled concern for themselves and what this scandal might do to their careers or ambitions. In fact, it won’t be lost on observant audiences that almost every character at one point or another laments the terrible consequences of gossip and rumors in one breath before repeating some juicy tidbit in the next. The guests claim to loathe any hint of a scandal but clearly love being part of the wealthy elite and all of the back-stabbing and whispering that comes with it. Before the night is over, each of these upper class smooth-talkers will become a bumbling buffoon: Chris helps herself to most of the wet bar, Ernie burns himself while helping to prepare the dinner (the motivation for this involves a hastily made up story about a Chinese domestic needing to rush away to care for her mother…in Japan), Cookie’s back is forever seizing up, and Ken becomes partially deaf after accidentally firing Charley’s gun. These antics, while bordering on camp as previously noted, set up this group of movers and shakers to be silly straw people who aren’t nearly so exceptional as they like to believe. They are easy targets for an “Everyman” humorist like Neil Simon.
Once again the technical aspects of the production are spot on. Michelle Spencer Davidson’s costumes are absolutely pitch perfect: gorgeous and eye-catching, meticulously planned and detailed, and absolutely of the era: the late 1980s. Davidson proves that you don’t need bustles and Jane Austen to create a “period piece” as the characters look like they’ve been perfectly snatched out of their moment in time. Brad Reissig’s set is beautifully crafted, creating not only a believable 2-story home but a dynamic space that utilizes platforms to create a dynamic flow for the non-stop physicality. The entry to the home utilizes an outdoor space with foliage that contributes a wonderful element to the show as the audience can see headlights approaching, guests walking to the door, and other small details that more firmly ground the setting in a real, if absurd, world. Loren Liepold once again oversees the technical aspects of the production, and the show went off like a dream.
The director of the show, Brett Olson, will probably be more familiar to theatre-goers from his work on the stage: a graduate student in the Theatre Arts program, Olson appeared in two other productions this season (Three Days of Rain and A Chorus Line) and directed this show as part of his thesis project. Although Olson has quite an impressive resume of theatrical experiences under his belt, one imagines that it’s still a bit of a gamble to entrust a mainstage production to a graduate student. In this case, the gamble certainly paid off as Olson delivers a show that is heavy on the laughs, packed with an enjoyable physicality, and cheekily successful. There is a clear and coherent vision at work in the performances and the technical details that speak to Olson’s talent for molding a production.
The show runs through this Saturday, April 12 at 7:30 pm at UND’s Burtness Theatre. Tickets are $15 for adults; discounted tickets are available for students. And although this theatre season is coming to an end, there is a poster in the lobby announcing the 2014-15 season which includes one of my favorite musicals of all time, Into The Woods!
Tags: Brad Reissig, Brandon Wetch, Brett John Olson, Brett Olson, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Burtness Theater, Burtness Theatre, Daniella Lima, Emily Wirkus, Hannah Diers, Into the Woods, Jackie O'Neil, Jacqueline DeGraff, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Joe Bussey, Loren Liepold, Lost In Yonkers, Matt Trujillo, Michelle Spencer Davidson, Miss Jaye, Neil Simon, Patrick Kloeckner, Rumors, The Odd Couple, UND Theater, UND Theatre, UND Theatre Arts, World of Champagne, Zack Lee