Center REPertory Company scores big laughs with pitch-perfect Rumors

Pat Craig
April 4, 2012

Center REPertory Company is on a hot streak, and it's the audience that's the big winner.

The Walnut Creek company continued the streak Tuesday, opening an explosively funny revival of Neil Simon's 1988 comedy "Rumors," neatly directed by Timothy Near and starring an astonishingly talented cast of comic actors.

Simon's farce may be the veteran playwright's funniest play, and as such, it's a difficult-to-ruin show. But you learn just how funny and well-crafted it is when you see an outstanding production.

And that's exactly what you get with this well-cast, well-performed and well-drawn re-creation of an evening from hell inflicted on a group of wealthy, self-absorbed New Yorkers who have gathered at the home of Charlie and Myra, a Big Apple power couple celebrating their 10th anniversary.

It is immediately clear from the get-go that something is terribly wrong. The first guests to arrive at the home of the deputy New York City mayor and his wife are Chris and Ken Gorman (Jennifer Erdmann and Mark Farrell), who discover the help is gone, the food is sitting out unprepared in the kitchen, Myra is missing and Charlie is covered with blood, having shot himself in the ear. There might have been a suicide note, but Charlie flushes it away before Ken can read it.

Chris and Ken decide to cover up the potentially explosive incident in their desire to protect Charlie. But the task is nearly impossible (even at a time when Twitter and Facebook are still decades away). The wall of secrecy crumbles as more friends arrive, including Claire and Lenny Ganz (Lynda DiVito and Mark Anderson Phillips) and therapist Ernie Cusack (Center Rep artistic director Michael Butler) and his wife, a cooking show hostess named Cookie (Kerri Shawn).

By the time Glenn and Cassie Cooper (Gabriel Marin and Sharon Rietkerk) arrive, the scandal stew is boiling in the living room as Cookie gamely prepares dinner in the kitchen.

The quest to both discover and hide the truth (two police officers, played by Dorian Lockett and Amanda Denison, ratchet up the tension) and to deal with a host of personal issues becomes too much for this crew as the evening turns into a driverless wagon, hurtling downhill at an accelerating speed, making audience members gleeful prisoners of their own laughter.

With the exception of going a bit over the top on the New York dialects, the cast is a delight. The timing is stunning, the nuance is nearly perfect and the physical comedy adds to the humor of the entire piece.

The set by Nina Ball is a perfect playground for farce -- a roomy living room with lots of furniture for bouncing off and tripping over, a staircase and upstairs hallway for running up and down and at least a half-dozen doors to run in and out of for maximum comic effect.

Rumors at Center REP is ready for a revival on Broadway

Kedar K. Adour
April 4, 2012

RUMORS at Center REP is ready for a revival on Broadway.

If you are looking for an evening of fun and side splitting hilarity head off to Walnut Creek to see Center REP’s production of Neil Simon’s comedy/farce/mystery Rumors that brought the audience to its feet for a standing ovation on opening night. Director Timothy Near who two years ago shepherded Noises Off to a highly successful run again demonstrates her comic credentials. She is aided and abetted with a cast that reads as a Who’s Who in the Bay Area. There is a bit of nepotism since she has cast her husband and artistic director Michael Butler in one of the roles. In this case, that nepotism is good, very good.

Rumors first saw light of day at the Old Globe in San Diego in 1988, where it underwent many rewrites before moving to Broadway for an extended run. A quick search of Google confirms its popularity in regional theaters with reviews ranging from ecstatic to ho-hum. There is nothing ho-hum about the Center REP’s production and without denigrating other members of the cast; the Tony Award will go to Mark Anderson Phillips for his hilarious performance. He will have to share that award with the well balanced cast that Near moves around, at times, like chess pieces and other times like sparing boxers with non-stop action.

There is an unwritten rule that farce requires four doors to accommodate the multiple entrances and exits. The obligatory numbers of doors are there but there is also a fifth door that fits into the mystery angle of the plot, its purpose is not to be revealed here. It also helps that Nina Ball has created a fantastic two story interior set with a soaring stage left staircase that is an integral part of the action and can be construed as a sixth door.

The convoluted plot is set in motion with the premise that an unseen couple, Charlie and Myra, are throwing a party to celebrate 10 years of ecstatic marriage. First to arrive at their upscale home are Chris (Jennifer Erdmann) and Ken Gorman (Mark Farrell) only to find Charlie shot, covered with blood (all off stage), an apparent suicide note and a loaded gun nearby. Ken is at a loss to understand “Why Charlie? Why?” The frantic Ken attempts unsuccessfully to be calm while Chris is shaken up enough to gain solace in a cigarette that she has given up for a year. Other unanswered questions are where are Myra and the servants and why is there no food?

It seems that Charlie is the Deputy Mayor of New York and if the details of what has apparently happened become known the scandal would be devastating. But what did happen? There are rumors that Charlie and Myra have had clandestine affairs and may be splitting up. When the other guests arrive the “secrets” become non-secret and all are sworn to secrecy.

Claire (Lynda DiVito) and Lenny Ganz (Mark Anderson Phillips) arrive after their new BMW has been struck by another car and Lenny has whiplash. Time to call a doctor for Lenny and maybe for Charlie? No, no! Call the police? No, no! What then? There is supposed to be a party so why not have one. And who better than “Cookie” (Kerri Shawn) wife of psychiatrist Ernie Cusack (Michael Butler) even though she is hampered with back spasms. Near uses the whiplash of Lenny and back spasms of Cookie to great comic advantage. Before the first act ends he adds another infirmity to mine the humor. There is a gunshot, no one is hurt but Ken is temporarily deaf. You can imagine what Neil Simon does with that turn of events and Mark Farrell milks his part to perfection with the aid of misunderstood lines by the other characters.

The shenanigans continue in act two with a third couple Glenn (Gabe Marin) and Cassie (Sharon Rietkerk) Cooper arriving. Marin and sexy Rietkerk play off each other with professional aplomb. In an attempt to resolve the issues (solve the mystery?), Simon introduces Officer Welch (Dorian Lockett) and Officer Welch (Amanda Dennison) who are investigating the shots heard by the neighbors and the auto accident. To obfuscate the true events, the three couples decide to impersonate various people to answer the Officers questions.

The plot bogs down slightly in the second act since the play lasts two hours and 20 minutes, but is brought to a dazzling conclusion with Phillips masquerading as Charlie brings the house down with his explanatory monolog and Near creates a tableau with cast on the staircase (see photo above) and the reason for the fifth door becomes known.

Rumors Best Play of the Year

Lee Hartgrave
April 9, 2012

Rumors- It's a winner!

Rumors is a farce that frolics in plot situation with highflying, edgy slapstick. The case delivers each situation with physical agility, hiding out, gunfire and running around frantically among all the rich furnishings. But even the trendy has their problems.

This is a home that was built for the ultra rich Doctors, Lawyers and wanna be Mayors. They must somehow get themselves out of a tangled web of money, servants, ditzy wife's and husband's follies.

In the posh suburban home, a party was supposed to be an event. But when the invited come in they find that the servants are missing, and they can't seem to find the host. Then they hear a gunshot from an upstairs bedroom. It appears that the deputy mayor of New York - has shot himself through the earlobe. He was depressed, and took some Valium. Lucky for him, he missed his head and he only shot his ear. The guests all decided to keep the shooting secret from the local police.

There is more craziness. It involves car wrecks -- and an eccentric wife who has a cooking show. Her name naturally is "Cookie". Love the line: "You're running for State Senator. I wouldn't run for you - for Chinese food!"

Things begin to settle down - After Lenny makes up a wild story to keep the cops off the track. But, oops...there is one more thing. Something strange is going on in the basement. And guess what? I'm not going to give you the ending.

This production at Center REP in Walnut Creek is a "Perfect Gem!" In the play is the "Best Acting ensemble that I have seen in ages!" It's an absolute can't miss! The cast truly burns up the stage.

The exhilarating actors that set a new gold standard - are: Michael Butler (Ernie), Amanda Denison (Officer) "One of the best", Lynda DiVito (Claire) "Engrossing", Jennifer Erdmann (Chris) "Provocative", Mark Farrell (Ken) "Compelling", Dorian Lockett (Officer Welch) "Good Job", Gabriel Marin (Glenn) "Always Enormour Talent", Mark Anderson Phillips (Lenny) "Jaw Dropping Performer", Sharon Rietkerk (Cassie) "Hilarious" and Kerri Shawn (Cookie) "Magnetic". Everyone is fabulous in this play - especially the hard-working Lenny (Mark Anderson Phillips). His comic charm just didn't quit. Well that's it. I've run out of praises"

Oh, there is one more praise - and that's for Director Timothy Near. - She made it Rock!"

Rating: Four glasses of champagne!!!! - (highes rating) - trademarked -

Center REP actors shine in Neil Simon's Rumors

Elizabeth Warnimont
printed in the Martinez News-Gazette and The Benicia Herald
April 9, 2012

Center REPertory Company of Walnut Creek is currently staging a warm and hilarious comedy, Neil Simon’s Rumors, with a cast that shines both individually and as a whole.

The laughs start early and only get better as audiences watch a high-brow dinner party unfold after an ill-timed catastrophe leaves the guests without a host.

Actors’ Equity Association members Jennifer Erdmann (“Chris”) and Mark Farrell (“Ken”) start things off with a bang, she in a chartreuse tutu-based cocktail dress and he in a comely tux. The two are at a loss when nobody answers as they ring the front doorbell, and even more so after they get in through the back door and find the place apparently deserted.

Both actors are natural comedians, hilarious in their every move as they dart around looking for signs of life, their perplexed expressions a riot in themselves, while attempting to make some sense of the bizarre circumstance. This is textbook farce, and these actors carry it off swimmingly.

Soon more guests arrive, and Chris and Ken feel they must somehow cover for their absent friends, leaving the newly arrived couple waiting and wondering at the door while they grasp for ideas. As playwright Simon tosses more and more complications into this would-be elegant and socially advantageous soiree, the cast picks it all up and runs with it to hilarious effect.

Lynda DiVito embodies the seasoned but gossipy socialite Claire, wearing the perfect Little Black Dress with coordinating black-and-white spikes, while Equity actor Mark Anderson Phillips (“Lenny”) is just as fully immersed in the role of the nervous, cynical husband with a persistent case of whiplash — which of course he sustained on their way to the party.

Kerri Shawn is delightful as Cookie, the eccentric wife of psychologist Ernie (Equity actor and Center REP artistic director Michael Butler), who winds up preparing the meal for everyone, despite a compromising yet astonishingly painless back problem. Rounding out the guest list are Glenn (Equity actor Gabriel Marin) and Cassie (Equity actor Sharon Rietkerk), a young couple in a contentious relationship. He struggles to pretend respect for her obsession with an ancient piece of crystal, while she refuses to revere his candidacy for “state” senate, as she tauntingly pronounces it. Marin is charming as the hapless husband and Rietkerk is endearing as the coyly immature but domineering spouse — who by the way strikes a mean meditation pose!

Phillips has perhaps the most fun part in the bunch when his character Lenny is called upon in the second act to concoct a story for police. The officers have arrived at the house looking for the owner of a car involved in an accident, but when Glenn accidentally lets slip that there were gunshots in the house earlier that night, the two cops suddenly have a lot more to investigate. The scene calls for an actor able to recite a complicated, winding tale while maintaining just the right pace, animating the story as one who is making it up as he goes along, and all with perfect comedic timing. Phillips carried it off with aplomb on opening night last Tuesday, setting off a heightened round of applause.

All’s well that ends well, and by the end of the party everyone seems so relieved to have made it through, they all literally dance their way offstage.

Timothy Near directs this successful production, a first-rate interpretation of the Simon classic. With the possible exception of some awkwardly adulterated language, the playwright would surely be proud.

My recommendation: For a good time, go see Rumors!

Center REP presents Neil Simon's Rumors

Jan Miller
Joint Forces Journal
April 8, 2012

Center REPertory Company of Walnut Creek, Calif. presents Neil Simon's Rumors, a clever comedy about a dinner party gone seriously sideways, currently playing through April 28.

In Rumors, four couples arrive at a posh suburban New York home to celebrate the 10th anniversary of friends. But the host has injured himself in an embarrassing way and his wife is missing. As the rumors, cover-ups, confusions and miscommunications escalate, so do the laughs. Add in a cook who's gone AWOL, a damaged BMW, a recurring back spasm, the eventual appearance of the police, and you've got a preposterous story no one can keep straight.

Rumors has been considered by many as Neil Simon's funniest play. If you're in to slapstick-type humor then that's absolutely true. I can say that it rolls at a quick pace and the dialogue is very witty.

What makes Center REP's production of Rumors so good is definitely the cast. Michael Butler (Ernie Cusack), Mark Farrell (Ken Gorman), and Gabriel Marin (Glenn Cooper), as well as Jennifer Erdmann (Chris Gorman), Sharon Rietkerk (Cassie Cooper) and Kerri Shawn (Cookie Cusack), do a superlative and convincing job of showing their confusion of what to do in a time of crisis. However, Mark Anderson Phillips (Lenny Ganz) and Lynda DiVito (Claire Ganz) steal the show with their remarkable acting skills and dialogue; especially "Lenny" when he tries to recreate the scene in an off-the-cuff fashion for the police, who come late to the party.

"There are few plays that reach the level of comedic heights of prior Center REP productions like Noises Off or Boeing Boeing, says Center REP artistic Director (and actor) Michael Butler. But Rumors is one of those plays."

"Rumors is a classic because the plot is motivated by a positive human impulse: the desire to take care of a friend in trouble," says director Timothy Near. "The harder they try to do good, the deeper they dig an inescapable hole for themselves. Their plight is silly but incredibly funny. I have never directed a play that makes me laugh so much."

Clearly, laughter offers one of the best ways to celebrate the human spirit. And for that reason, along with some incredible acting performances, Rumors is well worth seeing. For tickets or more information please phone (925) 943-7469 or visit www.centerrep.org.