Rumors a Riotous Romp

Jeffrey Biering and Michael Beltran

Is Neil Simon America's greatest living playwright? I'm not sure, but if he isn't he's right up there. His stories are always intelligent, frequently heartwarming and sometimes poignant. I've seen much of his body of work but for me, Neil Simon has produced mostly smiles, not outright laughter.

That changed last night at The Surflight. If you've seen Rumors before you know how very funny it is but this was my first exposure to it and I laughed my ass off. It almost felt like the Surflight was cheating. Sure, it's easy to mount a successful production if you start out with a hilarious play by a Pulitzer prize-winning playwright!

The play is set in a home in present day Snedin's Landing, an upscale suburb somewhere between New York City and Poughkeepsie (a fictionalized Chappaqua or perhaps Bedford Hills, I imagine). There's one set, the costumes are contemporary formalwear and the lighting required is undemanding. So all those departments had an easier time with Rumors than they did for one of Surflight's summer costume musicals like Camelot or The Scarlet Pimpernel.

But for director David Edwards and his cast Rumors must be anything but easy. The dialog and the blocking (the movement of the actors around the stage) are fast paced and sometimes intricate. And since this is comedy, the timing is crucial. Yet the entire cast consistently hits its marks like a well-oiled machine. This play has no star. It's strictly an ensemble piece. Every time I think I can pick out one member for an exceptional performance I think of all of the other great performances. Still, I can tell why I liked some of them.

First of all, it was refreshing to see actors I have enjoyed all summer in various period pieces performing a present-day story. It hadn't occurred to me how much fun it would be to see Surflight regulars Erin Esposito and Michelle Sesco playing neurotic upper-middle class Westchester wives. Aransas Thomas hadn't made an impression on me in her previous Surflight roles but the role of Claire Ganz perfectly illuminates her comedic talents. Notice I said the role illuminates the actor's talent, not the other way around. Maybe that's a hint to Simon's genius. He creates characters so appealing, amusing and well drawn that they bring out the best in the actors who portray them. He actually makes the actor's job look easy, even though they may be working as hard as they ever have.

The men's performances were every bit as accomplished as the women's. If I were forced to pick a standout it would be Jeffrey Biering as Lenny Ganz with Michael Beltran's Ken Gorman a close second, not because they were better than the others but because their characters get some of the funniest bits.

My review is almost over and I haven't said a word about the story. Come to think of it, it doesn't really matter. On second thought, it does matter. It's just that it's better if you know nothing about it. In the first ten minutes the situation gets so funny and weird you can't imagine what the play is going to be about, let alone how Simon is going to unravel the knot he creates.

Although I truly loved some of the musicals of summer they now seem as tepid and tame as a Nativity pageant compared to the crackling, contemporary wit and breakneck pace of Rumors. If you're looking for the fastest, funniest evening in New Jersey, go see the Surflight's production of Rumors.

Evening performances run through September 22, 2002 at 8:00 p.m. with a matinee at 2:00 p.m. on September 19.