It’s fitting that Neil Simon’s Rumors — playing May 16 to May 19 at the New Haven Theater Company on Chapel Street — effectively starts with a slamming door. Before that is a brief, frantic conversation between Chris Gorman (Jenny Schuck) and her husband Ken (Peter Chenot). Chris is dressed in an evening gown. Ken has blood on his tuxedo shirt.
“He’s bleeding like crazy,” Ken says.
“Oh my God!” Chris says.
“It’s all over the room,” Ken says. “I don’t know why people decorate in white.”
The he that Ken’s referring to his friend Charley Brock, whose house they’re in. Charlie, Ken reports, is in his upstairs bedroom, and he has shot himself. Ken is tending to him. He slams the door behind him. We never do get to see what’s going on in there.
Many people, faced with a situation in which a friend has shot himself, would call the police. Not Ken and Chris. They call Charley’s personal doctor, who happens to be attending the theater that evening. Chris is on the phone, beginning to explain to Dr. Dudley that they heard a gunshot as they were approaching the house. Ken by this time has reemerged from the bedroom.
“As we were getting out of the car,” Chris says into the phone, “we heard this enormous—”
Ken interrupts. “Don’t say anything!” he says.
“What?” Chris says.
“Don’t tell him what happened,” Ken says. “He’s all right. It’s just a powder burn. Don’t tell him about the gunshot…. Tell him he tripped down the stairs and banged his head.”
“But what about the blood?” Chris says.
“The bullet went through his ear lobe. It’s nothing. I don’t want him to know,” Ken says.
“But I already said we were getting out of the car and we heard this enormous — what? What did we hear?”
The ludicrous story the Gormans concoct for the doctor that they initially called to explain what was going on — the lies within lies — sets the stage for the two acts that follow. Rumors relates the story of four wealthy couples living in the greater New York City area in the ‘80s who are invited to the Brock house to celebrate the couple’s 10th anniversary. Instead, the house becomes a sort of roach motel of deception, as each subsequent couple to arrive at the house expecting a dinner party are first kept out of the loop, and then brought into a conspiracy that grows flimsier as its gets more elaborate. It’s clear from the start that all the well-heeled characters, among them a lawyer, the host of a successful cooking show, and a candidate for state senate, want nothing to do with whatever the mess is that’s going on the bedroom upstairs. The farce comes from the speed and ease with which the characters are willing and able to lie, to each other, to any authorities, and to some extent, to themselves, to stay out of trouble.
Rumors thus depends on a tight ensemble to work. Under the direction of George Kulp, the NHTC actors are more than up for it. Schuck and Chenot are believably put upon, and Chenot particularly fun when he loses his hearing in a plot machination I don’t care to give away. As Claire and Lenny Ganz, Susan Kulp and J. Kevin Smith hit the right note as a couple only a little unsure as to why they’re together; they’re people who seem happiest when they’re screwing someone else over. Cookie and Ernie Cusack (Margaret Mann and John Watson) are delightful as people more than a little impressed by themselves. And as Cassie and Glenn Cooper, Suzanne Powers and Jim Lones are painful (in a good way) as a couple who seem to be together only because of the money and power that have accrued to them. Personally, they don’t have anything else left.
Rumors is a fun play, ably cast and nimbly performed. On its surface, it’s a diverting trifle about rich people behaving badly. The question is whether it’s anything more than that. The plot, as it’s pointed out again and again, is a tissue of lies, lies that disintegrate almost as quickly as they’re spoken, only to be replaced by more lies. We never really do get to know what’s going on in that upstairs bedroom. We don’t know what really happened. When it comes down to it, we don’t really know how the Gormans got in the house in the first place. We know only what they tell us. We also know they’re huge liars.
And that’s how Rumors can linger in the mind. There is, after all, the possibility that the Gormans are lying a lot. That the Gormans maybe were in the house when that first gunshot went off. Maybe Ken was even in the bedroom. Underneath the surface-level inanity is the possibility of a much darker story, that the characters are all quite possibly accessories to murder. Which makes the fountain of BS that Lenny Ganz sprays at the cops (Donna E. Glen and Matthew Kling), and the cops’ willingness to buy the story, not just nonsensical but corrosive. As Officer Welch (Glen) says, she doesn’t buy a word of it, but she’s entertained, so she’s leaving.
With its premiere in 1988, Rumors thus has something in common with 1983’s Risky Business. Both, responding to the rampant celebration of glitz and wealth that shot through the entire decade, argue that if you’re rich enough and you’re a good enough liar, you can not only get away with things, but be rewarded. People might even like you for it. You might even get to have your own TV show, and run for office. Rumors may have been written as a light farce, a fun night at the theater. At the time, it was a crowd pleaser that got mixed reviews. But as we live with the fallout from the excesses of the ‘80s in all kinds of ways, time may have added teeth to Neil Simon’s romp. Who knows what these jerks all have locked in their basements? Isn’t it about time we got a look?
Neil Simon’s Rumors runs at the New Haven Theater Company, 839 Chapel St., May 16 to 19. Click here for tickets and more information.