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The Playgoer: Colonial Players’ Rumors

Enjoy an evening full of laughs in memory of Neil Simon
      Rumors was the first attempt at a laugh-out-loud farce from fabulously famous playwright Neil Simon, who died last month. It opened on Broadway in 1988 to decidedly mixed reviews. The comic master of character-driven classics — from The Odd Couple to the semi-autobiographical trilogy Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound — pulled out every gag in his file drawer for the more plot-driven Rumors. Critics weren’t all friendly. But audiences laughed, despite the sometimes-forced humor, and Rumors ran for more than 500 performances. A staple of dinner, community and high school theaters since, it is now running at Colonial Players through September 29.
     In Annapolis, as on Broadway, Rumors is generating a lot of laughs despite its weaknesses, some inherent in the play and some due to the production mounted by director Atticus Boidy and his hard-working cast. Let’s start with those laughs because there are plenty.
     The paper-thin plot holds together just enough to carry the kinds of laugh-out-loud gags Simon was famous for. Four couples are invited to a 10th-anniversary dinner party at the upper-class Victorian house of New York’s deputy mayor and his wife. When the guests arrive, the deputy mayor is upstairs with a self-inflicted gunshot wound, his wife is nowhere to be found and the staff are missing. There is no food, just a bar. 
    The play opens with Chris and Ken Gorman (Shannon Benil and Dann Alagna), the first to arrive, frantically trying to decide what to do. Chris is on the phone with the doctor, and Ken is up and down the stairs fretting over what the doctor should be told. Both Benil and Alagna handle the quick pace and comic timing with aplomb. The laughs come in a steady stream, and the thin plot thickens as they attempt to keep their host’s condition a secret.
Enter the other guests: Claire and Lenny Ganz (Mary Rogers and Brian Binney), whose new BMW has been hit by another car, leaving Lenny with a stiff neck … Ernie and Cookie Cusack (Glenn Singer and Amy Haynes), he a psychiatrist and she the host of a cooking show … and Glenn and Cassie Cooper (Kevin McConnell and Rosalie Daelemans), a state senate candidate and his sultry wife. 
       The actors all have the comedic timing and delivery needed to get the most out of Simon’s zingers; especially well timed are Alagna, Benil, Rogers and Daelemans. However some opening-night actors lacked confidence in their lines, resulting in stuttering and gaps that steal the momentum from any live performance. Still, Boidy’s direction kept the frenzied pace of Act I moving, and the laughs kept coming, a testament to the ensemble’s chemistry.
     In Act II, police (John Purnell and Stephanie Bernholz) arrive to investigate the car accident and get wind of the shooting. We get more laughs as the guests rush into a tizzy of cover-ups and deception during questioning. Many are generated by Binney’s animated monologue as his Lenny pretends to be the deputy mayor and appease the officers by making up the night’s story on the fly. The story is brought to life by the other guests’ miming.
      For all the good they do, Boidy and Binney miss a golden opportunity Simon hands any comedian. Binney’s stiff-necked entry after a car accident is ripe for physical comedy. One of his first lines hints at Simon’s intent: “I can only look up; I hope tall people are coming to this party.” It’s comedic gold, but Binney doesn’t maintain the physicality of that sore neck, and we miss what is written as one of the show’s funnier gags.
     Debuting as a director at Colonial, Boidy also designed the clever set with a round modular seating area in the middle of the in-the-round stage. But the pieces weren’t used to full effect, and the challenge of directing in-the-round means that sections of the audience often were left staring too long at the backs of actors, blocked from the action.
      Costumes were a mixed bag, some appropriate to the characters but, for others, far from what’s indicated in the script. Namely, Chris claiming hers cost $1,200 (obviously not) and the decision to wrap Cassie in an elegant fitted bodice and skirt that looked more like a prom dress than the 60-year-old Russian outfit the character says came from her grandmother.
      These quibbles aside, Boidy and company hit more than they miss. Thanks to Simon’s wit and the actors’ commitment, the evening is full of laughs. Just as the master meant it to be.
About two hours with one intermission, 
ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm, thru Sept. 29: 
Colonial Players’ East St. Theatre, Annapolis,
 $23 w/discounts, rsvp: ­