Theater review: Rumors

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It’s been a good eight years since Theatre Charlotte brought a fairly well-done production of Neil Simon’s Rumors to Queens Road, time enough for the slapstick and the one-liners to look and sound thoroughly refreshed in the current Davidson Community Players revival. The smaller company is putting on this farce in a bigger venue, Davidson College's Duke Family Performance Hall up at Lake Norman, a harder place to fill with sound and people. With spirited direction from Mark Sutch, DCP is meeting both objectives handsomely.

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On the bigger stage, Sutch is asking for broader performances. The gusto actually reached me more reliably in the eighth row at the Duke than many performances I’ve witnessed recently from closer quarters at CAST, the Duke Energy Theatre in Spirit Square, and the Queens Road barn. Anna Sartin’s elegant set, luxuriously appointed by a Charlotte furniture shop that certainly isn’t cut-rate, has a spaciousness befitting the estate of Simon’s deputy New York City mayor, making all the bellowing and high-volume conversation believable.

Chief bellower is Philip Robertson as hizzoner’s attorney, Ken Gorman. It’s Gorman and his wife Chris who arrive at Deputy Mayor Charlie Brock’s tenth wedding anniversary party only to find their host bleeding in his bedroom from a gunshot wound — with the missus and the servants nowhere in sight. Setting the tone as the other party guests arrive, Robertson goes into his damage control mode at a level of frenzied panic that will likely strike anyone living outside the DC Beltway as silly and absurd. Even as the guests settle in, Robertson finds fresh reasons for ridiculous shouting. The revolver in Charlie’s bedroom goes off again, rendering Ken temporarily deaf.

Each of the remaining three couples brings fresh eccentricities to the party. Taking the panic baton from the deafened Ken is Lenny Ganz, Charlie’s accountant, who arrives with a comical case of whiplash in a squashed BMW with his wife Claire. Lenny manages to surprise even himself with his resourcefulness when the police come to investigate. Weirder is Cookie Cusack, television cook-show hostess, who suffers from severe, thunderously loud back problems and preternatural absent-mindedness. Then there’s Cassie, wife of political candidate Glenn Cooper, who finds solace from her unfounded suspicions of her husband’s infidelity in meditative crystal-gazing — until the catastrophe that triggers the mayhem at the end of Act 1.

Two of the guys, Matt Merrell and Jim Esposito, reprise their roles from the Theatre Charlotte production, and both improve upon their 2004 efforts. The harried and exasperated Merrell is hot-wired with cover-up energy from the start as Lenny, delivering many of the juiciest one-liners and capping the evening with a long, improbable monologue intended to placate the curious cops. Esposito as Ernie is the voraciously perfect husband for a cook-show celeb, aided by the special Marion Lorne dopiness that Amy Beane brings to Cookie, who arrives with the most outré of Jamie Varnadore’s costume designs.

Rumors is one of Simon’s most finely calibrated mechanisms — the mildness of Charlie’s gunshot wound, the spaciousness of his estate, and even Ken’s misadventures with his BMW subtly contribute to the overall plausibility. The rest of the cast is at least adequate in executing the precision clockwork. Especially good is Scot Slusarick as the lead investigator, Officer Welch, and Cat Rutledge radiates elegant brittleness as Chris, fighting a losing battle to stop smoking — and moderate her drinking — as Ken’s attempts at damage control spin rapidly out of control.

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