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RUMORS – Neil Simon Farce at Hollywood’s Stella Adler Theatre

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Neil Simon's Rumors runs August 6 to August 15 at the Stella Adler Theatre
Neil Simon's Rumors runs August 6 to August 15 at the Stella Adler Theatre

Farce: that unmistakable theatrical genre of door-slammings and openings, garments falling off, and entrances made at the most embarrassing moments. This genre that inspired, for better or worse, injuries to the nuts as humor, has uncertain origins – both France and England would likely claim its invention. Farce enjoyed a long and prosperous run in the U.S., until 1982 when NOISES OFF both perfected and ruined the genre. NOISES OFF, Michael Frayn’s masterpiece about a third-rate theatrical troupe, was the definitive British farce. It was so perfect, in fact, that theatergoers who’d seen it would judge any subsequent farce, as “good, but no NOISES OFF.”

While NOISES OFF was enjoying its original hit Broadway run, Neil Simon was savoring the best reviews of his extraordinary career. He’d been America’s most commercially successful playwright throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but critical adoration had largely eluded him until his autobiographical trilogy BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS, BILOXI BLUES and BROADWAY BOUND. The only question, then for Simon was “what next?”

Farce, no doubt seemed like an odd and risky choice for Simon, who’d never tackled the genre before. NOISES OFF had closed by now (1988) but still cast an intimidating shadow. RUMORS, Simon’s improbable addition to the farce canon, was yet another triumph for the prolific playwright. Running for 535 performances, RUMORS won critical raves and brought Christine Baranski her second Tony Award.

As with much of Simon’s work, the characters are sophisticated New Yorkers, this time four couples, each of whom were invited to a party at the home of NYC’s deputy mayor. The conflict begins even before the play does, as the lights come up on frantic Chris Gorman (Anne Wilson) who’s seeking to calm her nerves after the party’s host accidentally shot himself. Chris’s hubby Ken (Nicholas Hargous) tends to the victim, while resolving to keep the incident a secret, despite the imminent arrival of other guests. As company filters in, doors fly open and shut, injuries commence, as do mistaken identities and innuendos, and Simon cleverly utilizes several unseen characters who add to the comic confusion.

There’s very little in The Stella Adler Theatre’s current production that does the play justice. The fast pace is appropriate, and the action takes place on a handsome and very functional set (designed by Alain Villeneuve) but the actors have very little feel for the material, and nearly all of them are hopelessly miscast.

The characters in RUMORS are all middle-aged, to one degree or another. This is periodically referenced in the dialogue, and the characters’ social stature, priorities and interactions confirm it. Most cast members in this production look and read a good deal younger than even the earliest categorization of middle age. The result, in the hands of a too-young and all-around less-than-stellar cast, is a show that looks an awful lot like a high school production.

This deficiency could be overcome, but the performers’ lack of connection to their characters, and inability to convey sophistication – both physical and verbal, dooms the production further.

Nicholas Hargous, who plays Ken, doesn’t appear to be a bad actor, but his Midwest sound, and cowboy mustache suggest he’d be more appropriately cast in something by Lanford Wilson or Sam Shepard. Anne Wilson effectively portrays her character’s manic nerves and energy, and she looks fetching in a designer party dress, but she looks like a first-year law student, not a successful attorney. Most out of place is Michael Malass, whose Lenny Ganz sounds more like a Brooklyn meathead than a well-to-do, BMW-driving accountant. Many of his lines, some of the funniest in the script, are lost due to Malass’ poor enunciation.

Only the fourth and final couple to arrive, would-be local politician Glenn Cooper and his malcontent wife Cassie are portrayed effectively. Patrick Koffel nicely conveys the smooth, salesman like aura of Glenn, and is age-appropriate to boot. Mariana Vilchez brings terrific angst and energy to Cassie. Her off-the-charts-sexiness doesn’t lend itself to the oft-mentioned extramarital affair that Glenn is reportedly having, but that’s a forgivable quibble.

The cast bios indicate that all RUMORS cast members are students at Stella Adler Academy of Acting and Theatre. Given that, much of the blame for this lackluster production falls at the feet of director Kennedy Brown and other powers-that-be at the Adler organization. Why they picked a play so fundamentally inappropriate for this youngish, student cast is flummoxing. Ultimately, they’ve done a disservice to a group of actors that is not without talent.

RUMORS plays Aug. 11 through 14 at 8 p.m., Aug. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Stella Adler Theatre  6773 Hollywood Blvd Hollywood, CA  90028. 323-465-4446

stellaadler-la.com.