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Simon Says

Theater review: Rumers and Jake's Women


Published November 17, 2004 at 5:00 a.m.

In dramatic terms, a "comedy" promises not just laughs but a happy ending. In nearly every such work, from Shake-speare's comedies to Sleepless in Seattle, that means leaving a young couple to "live happily ever after." But playwright Neil Simon shakes this formula up a bit, often beginning his comedies with the characters already disillusioned about the possibility of a fairy-tale marriage. His farce Rumors picks up on not one but five couples, years into their marriages. UVM's current production of this ultimately lighthearted show provides an amusing evening's diversion.

Neil Simon is one of those rare gems: a popular playwright who's still alive. Born in the Bronx in 1927, he has dozens of stage- and screenplays to his name, including Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and the film The Goodbye Girl. Director Sarah Carleton is on solid ground when she calls Simon the "most commercially successful playwright in the history of American theater."

Unlike the works of Tom Stoppard (e.g., Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), Simon's are rarely addressed in the academic arena. Their popular appeal doesn't necessarily mean they're lacking in substance, but Rumors does focus more on entertainment value than on serious matters.

The setting is an anniversary party for Charlie and Myra, two wealthy socialites. Ken Gorman (Shawn Ross) and his wife Chris (Leigh Branson) are the first guests to arrive, to a less-than-festive scene. Myra and the household servants are nowhere to be found, and Charlie is in shock from a bullet wound. It looks like a suicide attempt, which is bad news for Charlie's political career -- he's the deputy mayor of New York. As Charlie's lawyer, Ken feels a responsibility to protect him. If that doesn't sound very funny, Simon's take on it is; the fact that the bullet hole is through Charlie's earlobe is just the beginning.

Pretty soon other couples begin to filter in: Charlie's accountant Lenny (Evan Beamer) and his wife Claire (Lizzie Chazen); Charlie's analyst Ernie (Ted Szadzinski) and his wife Cookie (Molly Cameron); and the aspiring politician Glenn (Alex Vallecillo-Bone) and his crystal-worshiping wife Cassie (Shaun-Meghan McNally). Naturally, none of them, least of all Glenn, wants to be involved in a suicide-attempt cover-up.

Ken and Chris try to keep anyone from finding out why Charlie and Myra aren't at their own party. They start with easy excuses, saying that Myra's still getting dressed, and work up to more outlandish stories. At one point Chris tells the group that the servants are gone because Charlie and Myra thought it would be a great party activity for everyone to cook their own dinner, like in the old days when they were too poor to afford servants. Predictably enough, this suggestion is not met with much enthusiasm.

Despite the old saying about the cat and curiosity, none of the guests can stifle theirs. It doesn't help matters that, according to rumors at the country club, either Charlie's been having an affair (therefore, Myra obviously found out, left him, and he tried to kill himself), or Myra's been having an affair (so Charlie found out, confronted Myra, she left him, and so on). Simon engages the audience with characters who pretend the party is going just as planned, characters who spread gossip, characters who want to hear the real story and characters who don't want to hear a thing. He makes us wonder just how ridiculous this party can get -- not to mention where Myra is and how Charlie managed to get shot through the earlobe. Simon keeps us guessing, even as the cops arrive.

As if all this doesn't provide enough dramatic tension, each couple has their own dynamic and their own problems. Lenny enters with whiplash from a car accident he had on the way over. Ernie and Cookie are so helpful that Glenn mistakes them for the butler and the cook. Cassie drops her quartz crystal down the toilet -- an accident she compares to "killing your own child."

These written-in characteristics are important, but it's the cast that brings them to life. In this ensemble piece, one uncommitted actor can spoil the pace of Simon's quick-witted dialogue. Luckily, these actors -- all students -- prove their enthusiasm and maintain an admirable level of energy throughout the play. Branson as Chris starts the show off with a frantic phone conversation with Charlie's doctor; Ross as Ken bursts on and off stage with advice, vigorously protecting his client's reputation. Throughout her performance, Chazen (Claire) radiates self-confidence, apparently right at home in the world of cocktail-party chic. Beamer (Lenny) presents a charmingly dorky character throughout, then delivers a delightfully animated monologue toward the end of the play.

Costume designer Jessica Pescosolido, also a student, has done her part to abet her classmates' characters. Chris and Claire wear silver-trimmed black dresses -- Chris' elegant, Claire's risque. The unconventional Cassie wears a white dress with gold trim. Cookie stands out from the crowd in a Russian folk dress, as per Simon's script.

Jeff Modereger's set depicting Charlie and Myra's parlor is as rich as the costumes. He's included a staircase leading up to a balcony, as well as a wealth of doors, allowing plenty of options for entrances and exits -- a necessity in this show. The lush furniture, hardwood floors and ornate windows all reflect Charlie and Myra's prosperity.

This team's efforts handily entertain the audience; and with no commercial breaks, Rumors is even better than your favorite sitcom as a break from the real world.

Ancient Greek playwrights' obsession with plot made Aristotle conclude that character was of secondary importance. But contemporary Americans are far more concerned with psychology: We care as much about why a character does what he does as we do about what he does. So that old plot-based standard Oedipus Rex is far less popular than a personality-driven story such as Peter Shaffer's Equus. The challenge of this modern trend is how to convey psyche through story; that is, how to make the plot serve the character. As the Shelburne Players' current production of Jake's Women illustrates, playwright Neil Simon came up with an interesting solution to this problem. It's a compelling story pulled off by a talented cast and a savvy director.

Simon's solution is risky, however. He makes the protagonist Jake's internal world external. As in the film A Beautiful Mind, the audience is allowed to see only those characters who exist in the protagonist's head. Unlike in A Beautiful Mind, however, both Jake and the audience are aware that these characters are imaginary.

Jake (John Hasen), is a 53-year-old fiction writer, a man with a well-developed imagination. He spends a lot of time daydreaming about conversations with his estranged wife, Maggie (Ann Deppman), his psychiatrist, Edith (Janet Stambolian) and other women in his life. These daydreams are brought to life on stage. When Jake remembers the first time he met his wife, Deppman appears on stage and the two dramatize their meeting at a cocktail party.

The whole play takes place in Jake's Soho apartment, with the daydreamed women entering and exiting as he thinks of them. To keep the audience from being confused about what's real and what's imaginary, Simon has the characters tell us. Jake explains the situation to the audience and introduces each woman the first time she enters. What's more, most of these women are aware that they're daydreams, and aren't afraid to tease Jake about his active imagination.

Several scenes in Jake's Women are "real" interactions, usually with Maggie as the two strive to restore their marriage. Work-aholic Maggie is struggling to take charge of her life after an upbringing that taught her only to behave. She contends, and Jake acknowledges, that he is chronically detached from his own life, constantly observing scenes in his head, but never really getting involved.

Often, Jake mentally calls on his sister Karen (Roberta Nubile) or Edith for advice. Of course, there's a catch. When daydreaming, Jake can control both ends of the conversation, and in the beginning Karen and Edith are unlikely to say something he doesn't want to hear. But sometimes his active imagination runs wild and the daydreamed characters take on a life of their own, becoming as vivid to Jake as are the real characters -- and nearly as unpredictable.

Hasen's Jake has an unassuming manner and a healthy sense of humor. At times the script calls for him to address the audience directly a la Woody Allen -- we, too, seem to exist in Jake's imagination. His delivery to us is candid, but he has more trouble opening up to the "real-life" Maggie. In an early scene, he asks if she wants a divorce. It's a simple but strikingly honest moment when Hasen turns away, preparing to confront her with this difficult question. Hasen's light touch throughout the play makes Jake a sympathetic and compelling character, one who's never overbearingly self-analytic, even in those moments when Simon's writing becomes a touch Freudian.

Jake's women have plenty to offer this production as well. Deppman, as Maggie, is both poised and fierce -- a believable businesswomen. She also shows us how Maggie has changed since the early days of her marriage to Jake: In his dramatized memories, Deppman's demeanor is less certain, her voice more girlish; she's depicting that "good girl" who just wanted to be liked.

Nubile seems to have fun as the quirky film-buff Karen; she's not afraid to tell off Jake for imagining her in a dress that Bette Midler might perform in. Nubile has got the sisterly impertinence thing down pat. Stambolian's Edith is a tough cookie who's not afraid to chide Jake for not having read her book, nor to ask hard questions, even in his daydreams.

Melody Zagami plays Jake's girlfriend, Sheila. She has limited stage time but gets to take part in a memorable scene with Hasen and Deppman as daydream-Maggie. At this point in the play, Jake's imagination is running rampant, and daydream-Maggie taunts Jake throughout his conversation with Sheila. Eventually, when Jake yells at Maggie to leave the apartment, Sheila thinks he means her. She sits him down and gives him a good, animated talking to. What she doesn't know is that daydream-Maggie is mimicking her from behind. With Zagami's sharp gestures echoed and exaggerated by the tall, skinny Deppman, this simple gag earns big laughs from the audience.

Jake's penchant for living in the past, with his late wife, Julie (Elaine Cissi), contributes to his present marital problems. As the memory of a 21-year-old, Julie's guileless optimism is touching, especially when Jake tries to explain that she's a memory, and she assumes he's the one who died. Later, in a scene that could only occur in his imagination, Jake introduces a 35-year-old Julie and their daughter Molly (Nicole Ilena Grubman) at 21. Grubman demonstrates a Drew Barrymore-like combination of nerve and vulnerability. She's just as convincing when she's girl-talking with her mom as she is when she's telling off her dad for his manipulative imaginings. Rachel Howard fills out the "family" as the cheeky but charming 12-year-old version of Molly.

Although the actors occasionally just follow each other around the stage, for the most part the blocking is elegant and creates evocative stage pictures. Anne Koch's set supports this: Jake's couch, carpet and other furnishings are arrangeed on a diagonal, which is more interesting than a static, straight line on stage.

All in all, this gripping production not only makes a fantastic script feel accessible; it gives community theater a good name.