‘Rumors’ at The Fredericktowne Players by Mara Bayewitz

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You know when you go to your favorite neighborhood restaurant and the wait is too long, so you shlepp to another place farther away-and that becomes your NEW favorite restaurant? This is what happened when I drove to Frederick to see Neil Simon’s Rumors at The Fredericktowne Players.

This show has the perfect combo: classic farcical plot and Neil Simon’s name on the program cover, so there’s a good chance that it will be charming, funny, and a little tragic. This production took the expected ‘good’ and turned it into ‘fantastic.’

From left to right: J.D. Wine, Vince Vecera, Jr., Lori Cole and Jason Hoffman. Photo by Bill Adkins.

Rumors is the story of Charlie and Myra’s 10th anniversary party, located at their home in an affluent New York suburb. Charlie, the Deputy Mayor of New York, lay off-stage bleeding in his bedroom due to a bullet hole in his ear. Four invited couples make their way into the fray, creating a domino effect of lies, impersonations and exposed marital secrets.

The play opens with party guest Chris Gorman (Brenda R. Crooks) pacing the living room while her husband, Ken (Vince Vecera, Jr.) comes in and out of Charlie’s bedroom barking orders at his wife. Instantly, we are grabbed by the crisp, natural performances of Crooks and Vecera, whose interplay strikes as uncomfortably familiar. Both of these actors sit so comfortably in their roles that one with a new eye in theatre may say, “But they weren’t even really acting!” Ah, folks, that’s the gem in Crooks and Vecera. You believe every single word.

The next to arrive are Lenny and Claire Ganz (Jason Hoffman and Karen Richardson Stitely), fresh from a car accident that renders Lenny’s neck whiplashed. Stitely’s Claire lives up to her dramatic red dress, as does her comic timing and sardonic wit. She embraces Claire’s shallow, status-oriented gossipy side while showing humanity throughout. Jason Hoffman delivers one of the most brilliant comic performances I have ever seen in theatre, period. Picture Seinfeld characters George Costanza and Kramer’s hybrid persona, and you have Hoffman’s Lenny. The actor chews every line like a New York Strip steak, and by the time he delivers his Broadway-worthy closing monologue, he skips the knife and fork and takes a bite right out of the cow. His word emphasis, body language and facial expressions are completely organic and original. Though every single line he speaks is funny, he is just as skilled at listening. He never takes attention away from the other actors when it is their time, though one cannot help but sneak a peek to see what he’s up to.

In speaking with Hoffman after the show, I found him as kind and humble offstage as he was brilliant and original on. It was a privilege to share in this experience with him.

The next unwitting couple, Ernie and Cookie Cusack (J.D. Wine and Lori Cole), are the most bizarre in the show – think Mr. Rogers meets Twin Peaks. Ernie is a psychologist with an internal bubbling temper and a penchant for mocking his patients. Wine’s creative portrayal of Ernie paints him as pathetic and a little creepy. Cookie is the most outlandish player, wearing a childlike vintage frock and walking on all fours. There are some moments in Act I where Cole misses some opportunities to milk her antics, leaving the audience chuckling rather than clutching their stomachs. In Act II, she comes into her own and delights with her ditsy delivery.

From left to right: Kiersten Harris, Jason Hoffman, and Karen Richardson Stitely. Photo by Bill Adkins.

Late to the party are Glenn and Cassie Cooper (Bob Schwartz and Kiersten Harris). Glenn is running for state Senate and Cassie is his suspicious, off-the-wall, crystal loving trophy wife. Bob Schwartz plays the straight man perfectly, intriguing the audience with his aloof and befuddled demeanor as soon as he walks on stage. Schwartz’s presence is commanding throughout the show, making his character much more than George Burns to everyone else’s Gracie Allen. Harris is physically perfect for political nightmare Cassie. She floats across the stage like a girl practicing ballet in her bedroom, and charms us with her outlandish devotion to crystals.

The greatest surprise of the night: a small role made grand by Roy Hammond as the cop who busts the party wide open. Officer Welch, along with lackey Officer Pudney (Julie Lichtman, very solid in an almost non-speaking role), comes in at the end of the play to serve the audience with a recap while unraveling the truth. This role could have stayed small and compact without having a negative impact on the show, yet with Hammond in the part, Welch is important, strong, funny, and grounding. The actor enhances the show with his perfect timing and seasoned presence. If Hammond can do that much with such a small role, I’d pay double to see him with more stage time.

This velvety-smooth cast is one of the best I’ve seen (giving this writer ensemble envy), due in no small part to Joan Crooks’ direction. It’s easy for the audience to take good staging for granted because one is not supposed to notice it. Crooks accomplishes this beautifully. The movement on stage has intention from curtain to curtain, and there is not one moment of the show where anyone walks, sits or moves because it is in the blocking notes. Crooks uses all of the horizontal and vertical space fully and logically.

Dennis Crooks’ set design enables easy traffic flow, using a platform to create a second floor of bedrooms, and it’s perfectly understated, capturing the wealth of a New York City suburb. The neutral palette creates a pleasing backdrop for these colorful characters. Diane Causer and Margie Shattuck are the costume designers; Krissy Steelman and Steve Lloyd provide the lighting and sound design.

The Fredericktowne Players, located on the North Campus of Frederick County Community College, has a very strong sense of community and purpose. Every volunteer, from the will call attendant to the ushers, was warm, friendly and clearly happy to be there. This group wants nothing more than to create quality theater for Frederick, and that is exactly what they do.

So go fill up your gas tank and get lost and found with Rumors. Rumor has it you will have a great time!

Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes, including one intermission.

From left to right: Jason Hoffman, Vince Vecera, Jr., J.D. Wine, and Bob Schwartz Photo by Bill Adkins.

Rumors plays on October 5, and 6, at 8 PM, and October 7 at 2 PM at The Fredericktowne Players at Frederick County Community College – in the Jack B. Kussmaul Theater – 7932 Opossumtown Pike, in Frederick MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 315-3855, or purchase them online.