Rumor(s) Has It

 After opening last weekend, Neil Simon's  Rumors  runs this Thursday through Saturday at EBM Vintage downtown. More information on the New Haven Theater Company's  website .  Photo Courtesy New Haven Theater Company (NHTC).

After opening last weekend, Neil Simon's Rumors runs this Thursday through Saturday at EBM Vintage downtown. More information on the New Haven Theater Company's website.  Photo Courtesy New Haven Theater Company (NHTC).

The trouble is that the couple is having an affair, and the husband is screwing a younger woman Or maybe you heard that wrong, and it’s that the wife is screwing a younger man. Or maybe both of them are actually doing okay, but their friends are definitely headed for divorce. It’s going to be messy. 

That’s the case in Neil Simon’s Rumors, the New Haven Theater Company’s third and final show of the season. Directed by George Kulp with a large ensemble cast, it runs Thursday through Saturday at EBM Vintage on Chapel Street. More information and tickets are available at the group’s website

Rumors begins with a situation worthy of its title: Ken and Chris Gorman (Peter Chenot and Jenny Shuck) arrive for their friends’ 10th anniversary party early, to find their friend Charlie in his bedroom with a gunshot wound and his wife missing in action. They’re close friends of the husband—or they say they are—anxious to protect his reputation as they figure out how things went so wrong. 

The problem, of course, is that guests are going to start arriving in their finery, and conjecture around the incident will fly if Ken and Chris can’t get it under control. The odds are not in their favor: the duck and ham are still defrosting in the kitchen, the towels have not been laid out in the bathroom, special drinks and hors d’oeuvres are nowhere in sight. But the Gormans are a team—they can handle this, right? 

Not right. By no great surprise, a dark hilarity ensues as guests arrive and rumors begin to brew in hushed tones. Every character has something to contribute—frantic Ken, radiating anxiety even as he delivers lines like “Take it easy. Calm down. I’ll be right back,” lovebirds Ernie and Cookie Cusack (John Watson and Margaret Mann) with their bad backs and habit of helping in a pinch, Glenn Cooper (Jim Lones) and his rich guy run for state politics

It’s a comedy of manners, yes, but something else lurks beneath the surface, as taut and superficial as a face that’s undergone plastic surgery. As rumors grow, characters’ hold on reality becomes ever more tenuous, and lives are put at risk for the sake of appearances. From a wonky interaction dismissing the cooks’s unexplained absence the plot thickens and grows darker, with the audience ultimately unsure what is truth and what is fiction. 

And it works. In the audience, we have missed the “Ball gowns only” memo, and are acutely aware of the show’s spectacular quality long before any of the characters are hip to it. In one sequence, Claire Ganz (Susan Kulp) is desperate to settle her stomach after arriving in a newly-busted BMW. But the hired help is nowhere in sight. 

“Where's the cook, Mai Li?” she asks Chris, who is trying to cover for Charlie. “She makes great canapés.”

Chris shifts, noticeably uncomfortable. The words tumble from her mouth in a nervous stream. “Mai Li? I didn't see her. I think she's off this week.”

“The week of their anniversary party?” Claire counters.

“I think she had to go back to Japan. Her mother is sick,” Chris tries. 

“Mai Li is Chinese,” says Claire. The audience laughs because the jig is about to be up, and they know that Chris is still going to try to save this night, to protect her friends from something even she’s not sure of. 

Guests’ concerns over the party’s lack of structure—and their messy attempts to save it—become a punch line in a long joke about the one percent that feels so good to be in on. There are tennis clubs, and cooks, and motels bookmarked for affairs in this universe. It’s a universe that shares space with ours but feels foreign and apart, perhaps most evident when two hometown cops (Donna E. Glen and Matthew Kling) show up at the door. 

This is a show about timing, and the cast (larger than most NHTC pieces, with 10 members in all) nails it with grace and humor. Channeling some of the same shenanigans he had as Trevor last season, Chenot is fast-talking and neurotic, his sense of rhythm and volume right on for the lines that require it. Playing crystal-worshipping, perennially salty Cassie Cooper, Suzanne G.Powers lets herself go to a funky, quirky place that fits the role like a glove (in this case, a long white one reserved for proms, weddings, and parties). And J. Kevin Smith is an enormously funny and sour Lenny Ganz, captivating from the moment he enters with a crick in his neck to the end of the show, as he spins a story so insincere and fabulous no one believes it, and no one has to. 

As unlikely protagonist Cookie, Mann steals the show entirely, switching lamaze-like breathing for a bad back for a more entertaining version of Lydia Bastianich, Martha Stewart, Julia Child—the patron saints of wealthy television cooks everywhere. We don’t root for Charlie at the end (or do we?) but we root for her, because we want to see where she’s going next. 

If there is a slip up, it is with the set’s five doors, meant to open and close simultaneously à la Noises Off. The actors never quite get the timing right, such that when one door closes, a few seconds pass before another opens. 

But it ultimately doesn’t matter—Rumors is just fine with the little delays, as if the show is waiting seconds for its listeners to catch up. It is not an intellectually rigorous or subversive piece, as Lucas Hnath’s A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney was earlier this year. But it hits the right spot: a play about the poor decisions and poorer judgement of people with means, who have never had to make a practical and altruistic choice in their lives. 

That’s the word on the street, at least.