‘Rumors” is by Neil Simon, so it’s bound to have a hilarious line here, a deftly structured plot twist there, and characters riddled with neuroses throughout.
The problem is for all its instances of sharpness, “Rumors” never musters the wit, heart, or tickling humor of Simon’s best pieces. It’s a farce that depends on a whisper-down-the-lane escalation of gossip and innuendo and every character suffering from some injury or ailment that necessitates summoning an unseen doctor from his prize seats to “The Phantom of the Opera” — the mention of which hasn’t been updated here to “Hamilton” probably to account for use of wall phones as props and giving up smoking as a plot device.
Enough in “Rumors” is funny, and Keith Baker’s cast at Bristol Riverside Theater — running through April 17 — often makes the most of all Simon provided them, but the play doesn’t have enough at stake to build momentum. Its farce is built on middle-class quirks and motivated by precautions that don’t have to be taken. A lawyer who arrives first at an anniversary party for his best friend finds that friend dazed and bleeding from a self-inflected gunshot wound and panics at the idea that the press will find out and create a scandal because the wounded man is a deputy mayor of New York (though he lives in the Westchester County suburbs).
The deputy mayor is not in shape to tell the lawyer the circumstances of the shooting. What’s more, his wife, the hostess and co-honoree of the party, is missing. Hence, surmising and rumor-mongering ensue.
But not in a way that is rollicking or interesting. The rumors are the basic stuff of possible affairs and small-town small talk laced with snotty comments on what one of the female characters wears. It’s pedestrian stuff, as middle-class and inconsequential as Simon ever gets. Nothing is of import, tics of human behavior lack insight, unless you count the moans and ouches from sudden or chronic injuries and maladies, and worst, of all, you never come to care about what really happened. Crucial curiosity about the deputy mayor’s condition and his wife’s whereabouts never materializes. Nor does dread of the lawyer and other characters being caught or found criminally culpable for their evasion or secrecy come to a tension-causing head.
A lot may go on in “Rumors,” but it’s a vehicle without gas. The Bristol production amuses to a point and definitely prevents you from being bored, but no amount of skill from Baker’s cast can compensate for “Rumors” being plain uninteresting.
That cast tries and tries hard to infuse some immediacy to the proceedings. Jo Twiss, coming off marvelous turns in “The Language Archive” and “Always … Patsy Cline,” can cause a rise in comic temperature just in how she yelps in discomfort when her character has a twinge of back pain. Eleanor Handley, so moving in Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers,” finds the right note of snobby, wealthy, posh suburban disdain for her character. Jessica Wagner, brilliant as Bristol’s Patsy Cline, brings energy, tension, and a character that draws venom from others to the stage. Paul Weagraff scores as a sarcastic police officer, and Leonard C. Haas aces a complicated marathon of a monologue. The Bristol regulars come through, but the result is only mild amusement and avid admiration for actors using their craft in an attempt to give Simon’s old dog some polish and shine.
It is the nuances in performances you feed on with this production. Danny Vaccaro’s timing in a scene in which his character, the lawyer, is temporarily deafened by a loud noise, turns one sequence classically comic. Sean Thompson blurting out information to Weagraff’s cop that triggers Haas’s bravura moment is nicely done because the faux pas seems natural rather than having a Simonized spotlight beaming on it.
Acting ability cannot, however, cover the emptiness of a script based on one lawyer’s ill-considered fear about how an unexplained incident can affect his friend and client. There’s a lot in “Rumors” you just don’t buy. You disrespect and dismiss characters for their crazy indulgence in uproar instead of going with them in apprehensive anticipation of what happens next.
Let’s face it. A play that revolves around plumbing jokes, a pretzel bag resistant to opening (well played by Haas and Twiss), and serial accidental injuries doesn’t have enough going for it. Simon sets up a mystery, but it’s for naught.
Jason Simms’ set captures the opulence and taste of a Westchester County domicile while placing enough strategic doors for some farce to take hold. John Hoey shrewdly meets the challenge of lighting a set that is primarily white by bathing the stage in pinks and pastels that contrast and add color and texture to the otherwise colorless surroundings. Hoey also does well incorporating car lights in his design. Linda B. Stockton has an eye for the gowns of the women and for Twiss’ folk dress that elicits such negative attention. Joshua Friedman sound cues startle you in the right way.
Yet Baker’s well staged production leaves you cold and uninvolved for all of its good pacing and smart directorial ideas — an impromptu conga by the cast is an inspiration. Simon just didn’t give him enough textural ammunition for “Rumors” to be more of a pleasantly diverting flapdoodle.
Rumors, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, April 17, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m., and Sundays, 3 p.m. $37 to $47. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.