BWW Review: Real Housewives of Sneden's Landing: RUMORS
Neil Simon's Rumors - one of the most popular stage farces of the late 20th century - is given its due with the fourth production at Nashville's iconic and I daresay historic Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre. Directed with panache by stage veteran Lydia Bushfield (who, herself, has starred in one of the four productions of Rumors at Chaffin's Barn over the past quarter-century), Simon's broadly drawn characters are brought vividly to life by a cast of capable and very funny actors who know how to land a line, deliver a rejoinder and, when called upon, play the straight man to help a fellow actor out when it comes time for him to shine.
Rumors is still just as funny as it was the first time I saw it (way back in the late 1980s - Peter Marshall, late of the Hollywood Squares TV game show played Ken Gorman, with Patty McCormack, who created the role of Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed, was his wife Chris), even while the script's shortcomings remain as obvious (if not more so, truth be told) as ever.
Watching Rumors for the first time in years, one cannot help but be struck by how popular entertainment has followed Simon's created - and creative - scenario of entertainingly chaotic adventures among the well-heeled. In fact, it seems that Andy Cohen and Bravo TV may have stolen the plot of Rumors to inspire their Real Housewives brand of reality television. Frankly, if only we'd had a flipped table and accusations of "prostitution whore" hurled onstage, we might indeed be witnessing the latest episode of The Real Housewives of Sneden's Landing.
Attempting to update Rumors from its 1988 beginnings to 2016 proves difficult throughout the show: Some pop culture references are changed (Dr. Dudley, apparently the only M.D. in all of New York state, is pulled out of a performance of Hamilton, for example), while others are left standing (Cassie Cooper refers to her political candidate husband's girlfriend as a "chippy"). It proves somehow distracting and rather annoying as the plot unfolds, which in retrospect seems a mere quibble.
Simon's farce - amazingly Rumors was his first stab at creating such a broadly comic tale for the stage - focuses on the antics of guests at a celebratory dinner party in Sneden's Landing, New York, during which the 20th anniversary of Myra and Charles Brock (whom are never seen onstage) is feted amid an atmosphere of mystery and intrigue and enough comic hijinks to easily keep audiences laughing until the legendary cows come home. Charlie Brock is the vice-mayor of New York City and when his friends arrive for the party, only to find a groaning board of unprepared food in the kitchen, their hostess and her servants nowhere to be found and the politico bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound, that coterie of confidants immediately set out to cover up any perceived controversy and/or marital tragedy even before they know exactly what has happened prior to their arrival.
Clearly, it's the stuff of fantastic farce - replete with slamming doors, mistaken identities, perceived marital infidelities and all the other earmarks of strong stage comedy - and Act One moves at a quick pace, the story unfolding in a legitimately accessible manner no matter how farfetched the story the circle of friends concoct may actually be. Act Two proves more troublesome for Bushfield and her ensemble of seasoned actors: no matter how valiant their actions, the plot grinds to a halt while the set-up for Derek Whittaker's (playing Lenny Ganz) comic tour de force, a comedic monologue that focuses all eyes on him for a good ten minutes of onstage wizardry.
Whittaker proves himself equal to the challenge and delivers the much-anticipated scene with comic zeal, commanding the stage with ease, showing off enough stage presence to fuel the next three shows at Chaffin's Barn. Whittaker, who played the police officer in the very first Rumors presented at Nashville's family-owned chow-and-bow venue - and has subsequently appeared in every other intervening revival in the process - gives audiences the opportunity to see his comedic evolution as an actor with a bravura performance.
Joining Whittaker onstage in this production, playing his wife Claire is Nashville theater diva Martha Wilkinson, returning to play the same role she did in 1991. Her first take on the role was impressive, but clearly Wilkinson has evolved as an actor, as well, and the 2016 model Claire Ganz is more assured, to be certain, but she's also far more adept at delivering a line. Let's face it, there's no one better suited to play the heroine of a far more elegantly and confidently than she.
The comic sensibilities portrayed in Simon's script requires a cast that attacks the play with skillful abandon and Bushfield's nine actors deliver the goods. Charlie Winton and Linda Speir are delightfully confounded by the situation in which their characters find themselves, but somehow manage to remain believable despite the situation in which they find themselves.
Chase Miller is well-cast as the ambitious and unctuous state senate candidate who's cuckolding his wife with a tennis club gossip who's a fundraiser for the local Democratic Party committee (and whom we never see, but get to know as well as we do any character onstage), while Jenny Norris-Light is the perfect foil for Miller as his younger, sexier and more gorgeous wife who knows the score, both off-court and on the ballot. Norris-Light displays her own ease with a comic moment, while maintaining her focus while twirling a phallic-shaped quartz crystal all about the Brock living room.
Joy Tilley Perryman and Bradley Moore, however, very nearly steal every scene in their thoroughly committed performances that fairly ring with authenticity. She plays an eccentric TV chef (ah, how we long for the days before The Food Network deified everyone who could follow a recipe without looking directly into the camera) and he is her psychotherapist husband, who's missing his regular Friday night group session for the dinner party. Perryman is wonderfully appealing as the slightly daft, but always in control Cookie, and Moore has never looked better onstage than as Ernie.
Mike Scott completes the ensemble as the hapless Officer Welch, sent to investigate reports of gunshots, and leaves with Lenny's made-up story still ringing in his ears simply because he appreciated the performance.
In addition to directing, Bushfield provides the production with its costume design and suffice it to say, everyone's turned out in their cocktail party best (even if only one of four men at the party is apparently able to tie his own bowtie) and John Chaffin's set provides an ideal playing area for the onstage hilarity that ensues the moment the lights go up on The Barn's magical floating stage.
- Rumors. By Neil Simon. Directed by Lydia Bushfield. Produced by Janie and John Chaffin. Presented by Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, Nashville. Playing through June 5. For details, go to www.dinnertheatre.com or call (615) 646-9977. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).