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Lover's quarrel 

& & by Michael Bowen & & & &

In watching stage farce, we can't deny that we take pleasure in the depiction of prohibited desires, because the absurd situations and two-dimensional characters make it safe to do so. We can, in effect, have it both ways: Although we may enjoy the vicarious fulfillment of our forbidden wishes, we want just as much to see them punished. If we can see our illicit desires both gratified and chastised in a theatrical plot apparently devoid of any logic or actual harm, then our savage wishes will be rendered harmless. Farce, in this way, resembles the world of our dreams.

At least that's what literary critic Barbara Freedman says. And her analysis is just the sort of rumination that self-important theater critics cite in order to beef up reviews of the latest Neil Simon comedy.

Wait, I may be having a postmodern moment here. More importantly, I also found myself having a mostly enjoyable evening recently while watching all the door-slamming in Rumors, the 1988 Simon farce now playing at the Valley Repertory Theater on weekends through Oct. 21.

The sit that Simon's com is based on involves a dinner party at which host and hostess never show up. Adultery (both on-stage and off), lying, vanity, self-pity, hostility -- all these forbidden desires are released and then squelched. For example, the aspiring politician basks in the public recognition of, "Say, aren't you running for state senate?" Pause. "I wouldn't let you run for Chinese food." Rimshot. The vain get to have their cake in this play, but they have to eat it, too.

Simon has written more than just one-liners here, however; he has fashioned a thinking person's farce. His title signals the focus, and the play shows us all the stages of rumors in the making -- how they begin, how they're embellished, how they're penetrated and disproved -- and then refashioned yet again. The playwright intensifies the hijinks of his cast -- four couples and two cops -- by bringing them on one couple at a time. Each pair has a mistaken theory about what happened to Charlie and Myra.

Director Jon Hurt wisely capitalizes on this strategy of mounting insanity. In one sequence, one of the couples is first informed that their host may be in mortal danger. Hurt strikes the right note by having his actors circle chairs hysterically, then hold their brows and calm themselves -- only to break out into hysteria once again. The chaos at the end of Act One, moreover, with all eight guests scurrying about, silverware flying, phones ringing, arguments breaking out, is well choreographed.

The rapid pacing, however -- so essential to farce -- lags badly when the police show up. As the characters fall all over themselves trying to concoct cover-up stories, there's too much dead air. In a larger house, perhaps, with waves of laughter splashing down onto the stage, the Valley Rep actors could pause and calibrate their punch lines. Faced with the cops' interrogation, the Saturday night audience seemed about as guilt-stricken as the characters onstage.

Among an ensemble cast, Scott Finlayson stands out as the host's frantic tax accountant, with whiplash and a potential scandal on his hands. In a play full of people trying to foist their half-baked prevarications onto others -- anything to avoid taking responsibility for this mess -- it falls to Finlayson's Lenny Ganz to deliver the evening's tour-de-force speech, deluding the Keystone Kops with an improbable, rapid-fire, wholly improvised yarn that tries to account for just how this Charlie fellow ended up with a bloody earlobe. Finlayson's exasperation, so comic earlier in the evening, does him a disservice here, where he must switch gears and seem fully and increasingly confident as he spins his tale. But in expressing outrage at the other's intrusions and cockamamie stories, he's a scream.

Among the women, Vicki Hynes (as Cookie, the zany cooking show personality) has a fine comic bit that involves crawling in pain on all fours, rumpwards to the audience. Katy Bardsley, as a wife who deals with the stress of straightening out the schemes of her scatterbrained attorney-husband by dabbling in tobacco and alcohol, stands out as the picture of elegance. If the set and costumes don't quite persuade us that we're among the affluent East Coast crowd who remember every outfit at the latest $500-a-plate charity event, then neither do they detract much from our sense that we're viewing a playland in which worries don't exist and surely no one will ever go hungry -- as long as the kitchen help shows up sometime soon.

All in all, VRT has presented a serviceable production of one of Simon's better comedies. It's only a farce, so check your favorite Freudian dream-analysis at the door and have a few chuckles. Unless, of course, you're feeling a bit randy. You may need to be punished.

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