Rumors at the Ritz Theatre Company

This September 9th, I experienced an evening of hitting, characters assuming tasks they’re not accustomed to and a host of misunderstandings. One couldn’t select a more appropriate prelude to the Philadelphia Eagles’ 2017 season. Unlike the Birds’ woes, however, the Ritz Theatre Company intended to present a comical performance to fans. They staged Neil Simon’s Rumors directed by Al Fuchs.

Attempts to evade and/or cover-up a perceived political scandal served as the characters’ motivations. While a ubiquitous topic for non-fiction writers, Mr. Simon utilized his unique comic craft as only he could. He entertained the audience with a fictitious take on an unusual one involving the strangest cover-up ever attempted. The playwright’s skill along with the superb performances transformed this common topic into an original masterpiece.

Ken Gorman (played by Brian Rivell) and his wife Chris (played by Suzanne Yocus) arrived at the Deputy Mayor of New York’s home. They’d planned on attending a party celebrating His Honor’s tenth anniversary. Instead Ken discovered him bleeding and unconscious with a gun next at his side. Mr. Gorman happened to be both the host’s attorney and friend. He didn’t want word of the incident leaked until understanding what happened. He and Chris decided not to tell the authorities.

Brian Rivell delivered a spirited performance as Ken Gorman. One has to credit him for maintaining his focus while tasked with running up and down stairs all evening. He didn’t allow the role’s physical demands to impede his comic timing. He excelled in the latter when his character became temporarily deaf.

Suzanne Yocus served as the perfect counterpart to Mr. Rivell in the role of Chris Gorman. The anxious way she scurried about the stage battling her craving for a cigarette almost made me long to break my twenty year fast. Ms. Yocus also managed to stagger about the set as though intoxicated. I credit her for still delivering her lines clearly while playing a character in that state.

Following the Gormans’ decision to keep the Deputy Mayor’s condition quiet, the Gatzs arrived. Kumar Goonewardene nailed the language and accent of a foul mouthed New Yorker. That’s quite a stretch for someone living in the culturally sophisticated South Jersey area.

Later in the show his character took on a separate role within the play. Mr. Ganz played the Deputy Mayor when the police inquired about gunshots. Mr. Goonewardene delivered a monumental soliloquy explaining what happened. What Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” was to drama, this one was to comedy. The performer convincingly spoke his lines like someone coming up with them extemporaneously. That served as the true highlight of this show.

Jean Collelouri as (Claire Ganz) took on arguably the most challenging role in the show. Her character had the tasks of trying to get the truth out of the Gormans, laying out all the gossip that gave the show its title and playing a jealous wife. Ms. Collelouri met all of these difficult tasks brilliantly.

Then the most interesting invitees arrived. In the couple of Ernie Cusak (Michael Murphy) and Cookie Cusack (Carol Furphy-Labinski), Mr. Simon may have created the most unusual husband and wife team in the history of theatre. Mr. Murphy played a psycho-analyst and Ms. Furphy-Labinsky the host of a cooking show. Had the entire show focused on them, it would’ve still justified the ticket cost.

Mr. Murphy did an exceptional job getting into his character. His beard, moustache and glasses gave him a striking resemblance to Sigmund Freud. The soft voice and calm manner of talking complimented his character’s persona. The low-keyed way he played this role made the scene when he lost his temper much more humorous.

Ms. Furphy-Labinsky had both the privilege and the challenge of delivering the show’s funniest line. When her character discussed her back trouble, she explained, “It only hurts when I stand up or sit down.” She expressed the line perfectly.

Ms. Furphy-Labinsky also wore the most comical attire. One of the characters called it an odd item to wear to a dinner party. While the script referred to it as Russian, it brought to mind a Bavarian maid’s attire. Did this performer utilize it to subliminally signal future directors her openness to performing in The Sound of Music?

This group of characters made for a very amusing show. But Mr. Simon kept the comedy coming. Glenn Cooper (played by Robert B. Colleluori) and Cassie Cooper (Jennie Knackstedt) rounded out the ensemble. Tolstoy famously wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This couple pushed the envelope on the latter.

Mr. Colleluori played a character running for state senate. Facing his wife’s rumors regarding infidelity challenged him more than the upcoming election. The performer delivered a series of denials with increasing intensity. He captured the complexities of a politician’s behavior. At first he hesitated to give his name to the policeman questioning him. When the officer later said he looked familiar, his character couldn’t resist effusively announcing his bid for state senate.

Ms. Knackstedt’s interpretation of the haughty, Cassie, brought to mind Dan Aykroyd’s Winthorp in Trading Places. Ms. Knackstedt’s choice of voice captured the character’s affluent background. She expressed herself in such a way that made her tone sound both exaggerated, but still believable that someone would speak in that manner. That’s not an easy balance to execute.

I would’ve preferred more applicable music playing before the show and during intermission. I presume the director opted for 1980s pop music since Rumors premiered in 1988. Since the play centered on a high society dinner party, I thought either ‘cocktail jazz’ or classical string music would’ve established the mood better.

With all these hijinks occurring, Officer Welch (Stephen Coar) and Officer Pudney (Abbe Elliot) rounded out the dramatis personae. After Mr. Ganz in the guise of the Deputy Mayor tried describing the evening’s events, Mr. Coar’s character delivered another of the show’s memorable lines. It would serve as a good summation of the entire script: “I didn’t believe a word of it, but I liked it.”

The Ritz Theatre Company’s Producing Artistic Director, Bruce A. Curless, introduced Rumors with a bit of bravado. He started telling the audience: “If you enjoy the show, spread the word.” He then modified his remarks by re-stating them as: “After you enjoy the show, spread the word.” There’s an appropriate epigram attributed in various forms to people from Dizzy Dean to Jaco Pastorious. It reads: “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.” The cast and crew did just that. Based on this performance’s quality, rumor has it they’ll continue doing so through the entire run. It ends September 24th.

 

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