The ‘Rumors’ fly

Quick wit and perfect timing usher in the Maui OnStage season opener

David Negaard (from left), Dan Church, Hana Valle and Lou Young hit the stage with comedic precision when Maui OnStage presents it’s 2018-19 season opener, “Rumors” by Neil Simon, directed by David Belew. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, Sept. 28 through Oct. 14 at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku. To purchase tickets for any Iao Theater event, call 242-6969 or order online at www.mauionstage.com. Jack Grace photos

The recent passing of legendary playwright Neil Simon at the age of 91 presented an unanticipated perspective of Maui OnStage’s season opening production, Simon’s 1980’s “Rumors,” as the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku celebrates 90 years of hosting entertainment events and embarks on its 91st season.

When Simon’s pure comedy, “Rumors,” debuted in 1988, he was in the midst of his monumental stage trilogy —“Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound.”

In “Brighton Beach” we meet Eugene Morris Jerome, a teenager that loves the New York Yankees, is obsessed with girls and dreams of becoming a writer. In “Biloxi Blues” Eugene narrates his World War II years stationed on an Army base in Biloxi, Miss., and in “Broadway Bound” Eugene and his brother Stanley are in line to be hired as professional comedy writers.

Many would argue that there is a fourth chapter, Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” a play that local “Rumors” Director David Belew previously directed in his native Chicago. Like the trilogy, the semi-autobiographical play is an account of Simon’s life chapter as a writer on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” alongside his brother Danny Simon, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart (“M.A.S.H.”), Michael Stewart (“Hello, Dolly!”), Mel Tolkin (“All In the Family”), Aaron Rubin (“The Andy Griffith Show”) and Gary Belkin (“The Carol Burnet Show”).

That great writing staff shaped American comedy for the next 50 years and continues to influence us today.

Carol Lem (from left), Francis Tau‘a, Shane Borge, Marsi Smith and Kathryn Holtcamp deal with family issues in ProArts Playhouse’s season opener, “Other Desert Cities.”

This is the third time Belew has taken on a Neil Simon play, the other being “Lost In Yorkers,” and I asked if he had a favorite.

“It’s difficult to say. One would be hard pressed to identify that all three were written by the same writer. That is part of Simon’s greatness, but I have developed a great appreciation of Simon as a result of directing ‘Laughter on the 23rd Floor.’ It presents the history of TV comedy,” explained Belew.

“Those writers created sketch comedy, the sitcom and then brought that comedy style to Broadway plays and musicals — a style that we still see today. It still astounds me that Simon had four hit plays running on Broadway at the same time in the 1960s. That is unheard of,” he added.

The four hits were “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple,” “Plaza Suite” and the musical “Sweet Charity,” to which he wrote the book.

“I’ve experienced first-hand the joy, sorrow, laughter and sadness that Mr. Simon was able to incorporate into every piece he ever wrote,” says Belew. “It’s not just his comic plays, it’s his iconic body of work. Fifty years beyond his beginnings, his work continues to resonate and be produced. It’s so varied, and a mainstay around the world.”

In “Rumors,” Simon made an odd detour in 1988 as he stepped away from his signature character-driven comedy while his trilogy was still incomplete to take on traditional farce. Simon called it the most difficult play he had ever written because, “Every second counts. I mean, you can hardly go 15 seconds without a laugh in a farce because why are you doing it otherwise?”

I asked if that challenge was just as difficult for Belew and the “Rumors” cast.

“Absolutely. We’re looking to make sure that punch lines are landing at the precise moments; that the timing is there. The opening of doors needs to be choreographed as the actors move in and out of the room at the exact right time,” he said. “As Act 1 comes to a head, we need to keep the audience’s eyes moving in the right order to pull focus to the proper spot while another comedic moment is about to ensue in another place on our set. A farce is driven by laughs, and each laugh relies upon what happens just seconds before the previous laugh.”

I asked Belew, in comparison to Moliere, Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward, will Simon’s plays continue to be produced in numbers approaching hundreds of productions annually in the future?

“If you look at his important works, I think the next couple of generations will see his plays produced regularly. The trilogy and “Yonkers’ will still be seminal works for years to come. Going forward in any given era, these plays may not be seen as frequently, but they will be respected and studied and copied, and the beats and the jokes and the style will be adapted for modern audiences.”

When “Rumors” debuted, it was hailed by The New York Post as “Light, frothy and fun.” NBC said “Not only side-splitting, but front and back splitting” and The New York Times said, “Has nothing on its mind except making the audience laugh.”

Belew assured that he had the 10 ensemble cast members to deliver Simon’s intended laughs. I asked why he thought “Rumors” is less produced than other Simon plays.

“It’s difficult to pull off. It requires 10 people that understand his style — that understand New York. So many of his plays are character driven. You develop feelings for those characters, like in a sitcom. I’m sure this play has been passed over by some because they weren’t sure they would find 10 actors that could master farce and timing. That’s not easy.”

The Maui ensemble consists of Dan Church, Perry Kunin, David Negaard, Cindy Reeves, Jennifer Rose, Julia Schwentor, Ally Shore, Hana Valle, Keith Welch and Lou Young.

In the farce — and not unlike a pretentious Moliere gathering — Charlie Brock (unseen in the play), the Deputy Mayor of New York City, has shot himself just before his 10th wedding anniversary dinner party. His wife, Myra, is nowhere in sight.

His lawyer, Ken Gorman (Young), must get the story straight before the guests — Manhattan’s elite, as well as a couple of NYPD officers — arrive.

Chris Gorman, (Shore), Ken’s wife, calls Charlie’s doctor, but before she can tell him what has happened, Ken commands her not to inform the doctor of the shooting. As Chris ends the phone call, Lenny (Negaard) and Claire Ganz (Rose) arrive and inform the Gorman’s that they’ve just been in a car accident.

Next to arrive is Ernie Cusack (Kunin), a psychologist, and his eccentric wife Cookie (Reeves), who are not told what’s going on. The final guests to arrive, Glenn (Church), a politician running for the New York state senate, and his girlfriend, Cassie Cooper (Valle), bring their hot-tempered relationship and quarrel continuously.

I asked Belew why Maui audience should attend this very New York show.

“Because it’s really, really funny,” offered Belew. “If you want to relax, laugh and enjoy yourself, ‘Rumors’ allows for that. There is no social commentary, no dramatic moment to be revealed. Between the chaos of storms, hurricanes and divisive and constant augments, it’s rather nice to put aside problems and just have a fun evening at the theater. “

This week

ProArts Playhouse in Kihei presents “Other Desert Cities” by Jon Robin Baitz, directed by Mark Collmer. The play’s events center around a family Christmas Eve reunion in 2004 at the home of Polly (Marsi Smith) and Lyman Wyeth (Francis Tau’a), a former movie star who became a U.S. ambassador during the era of his political hero, President Ronald Reagan.

Their daughter Brooke (Kathryn Holtcamp), a New York-based travel magazine writer, returns home to Palm Springs after a six-year absence and announces that she is about to publish a memoir dredging up a tragic event in the family’s history.

Brooke is joined at the holiday gathering by her younger brother, Trip (Shane Borge), a hip television producer, and Polly’s liberal sister, Silda Grauman (Carol Lem). The sisters had co-written comedy screenplays in the 1960s, but have been estranged due to politics for many years.

* Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, opening Friday and running through Oct. 7 at the ProArts Playhouse at Kihei’s Azeka Place Makai. For more information or to purchase tickets for any ProArts event, call 463-6550 or visit www.proartsmaui.com.

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