Madison Theatre Guild
The plot of Rumors could be the start of a joke: a lawyer, a shrink, and a politician walk into a dinner party. Then, of course, everything goes wrong. Hilariously wrong. Madison Theatre Guild gets everything right in its production of Neil Simon's classic comedy (through April 6 at the Bartell Theatre).
It's the anniversary party for the deputy mayor of New York and his wife. The first guests show up to find the servants and the mayor's wife missing. The deputy mayor is there but has shot himself through the earlobe. As the guests continue to arrive, the group tries to simultaneously figure out and cover up what happened.
The program assures "laughter guaranteed" and that promise was well kept on opening night. The audience roared and clapped, thoroughly delighted by the hilarity onstage. From spot-on timing in the delivery of lines to more subtle reactions and facial expressions, this was high-quality comedy. Under the direction of Rebecca Jallings and Lee Waldhart, the show unfolded like a sitcom, full of inside jokes and uncomfortable moments.
Each of Rumors' eight main characters delivered a phenomenal performance. From Cookie's (Mickey Crocker) kooky Russian dress to Ernie's (Stuart Brooks) wild hair and shuffled walk to dripping-in-jewels Cassie (Sheri Meland), the actors were distinctive in appearance, dress and character, which made it easy to keep them straight.
Lee Waldhart garnered the heartiest laughs on opening night. He plays Lenny, a curmudgeonly smart-ass who reminded me a bit of Rodney Dangerfield. Waldhart's performance was confident. Punch lines felt as fresh as if he was making jokes up on the spot, and he could get the audience to laugh with even the slightest move.
As Lenny's wife, Claire, Patricia Kugler Whitely also impressed. On opening night, her performance strengthened as the show progressed, and by the second act, the audience had fallen in love with her. At first, Claire seems dominated by her strong-mouthed husband, but by the end, fueled by champagne and the drama of the evening, she's smart and sassy. Her partner in sass is Chris, well played by Jenny Maahs. As Chris's husband, Ken, Scott Albert Bennett's portrayal is a tad flamboyant in a Nathan Lane kind of way but fits nicely into the palette of characters.
The show lagged a bit toward the end of act two, when two police officers (played by Simone LaPierre and Stewart Hayes) show up at the party. As an overeager cop, LaPierre delivered lines forcefully and broke from the rapid pacing the audience had grown accustomed to. I'd have liked less vitriol and more comedy from this character, to keep with the farcical nature of the show.
Overall, Madison Theatre Guild's Rumors is a remarkable production. An especially fine cast makes this show a must-see. It's professional and fun and really, really funny.