Goodbye, Charley - Neil Simon steps into Agatha Christie's parlor

One doesn't necessarily think of Neil Simon as a surrealist playwright. But there is something about watching a room full of well-dressed people, seemingly unable to leave and haplessly mired in mysteries and misperceptions in Simon's minor two-act, "Rumors," that brings to mind the subconscious anarchy of filmmaker Luis Buñuel (who visited similar terrain in 1972's "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie").

On the other hand, "Rumors," currently playing as a Next Step Theater production at the Seattle Center, is less interested in dreams than in the comic nightmare of a dinner party that never occurs.

The setting itself presents an unsettling enigma that might have tantalized Sherlock Holmes, yet evokes much telling behavior from four married couples whose first instinct in a crisis is to cover it up. As the lights go up on the well-appointed living room of the off-stage Charley and Myra (so off-stage we never meet them), Chris (Jennifer Kay) and Ken (Jeff Lang) Gorman, in formal evening wear, are in turmoil over an eerie discovery at their hosts' home. The Gormans have arrived early for Charley and Myra's 10th anniversary celebration, but the cooking staff is gone, no food has been prepared, Myra is missing and Charley is upstairs with a bullet hole in his ear.

Rather than call the police, Chris and Ken, both attorneys, try to manage the inexplicable situation by playing down possible criminal implications, fudging a few facts in Chris' call to a doctor, bandaging over the gunshot wound and improvising a shaky narrative to tell the other guests once they arrive.

But it isn't long before the other couples discover something is wrong and expand on the Gormans' deception. In doing so, each character reveals, through exasperated quips and increasingly unguarded body English, important details about his or her relationship to truth.

We also learn much about the distribution of power within these sundry marriages. Ken, for instance, is subtly dominant, putting words in the mouth of Chris and preventing her from calming herself with a cigarette, a habit she gave up months before, at Ken's urging. It's not until Ken temporarily loses his hearing - the result of a loud gunshot - that Chris, also bolstered by a few drinks, seems to come alive as her own woman.

Meanwhile, the fragile bond between Glenn (Andrew Jenner) and Cassie (Loreen Anderson) Cooper threatens to evaporate completely. Glenn, running for New York's state legislature, tries to distance himself from potential scandal at the scene, and Cassie - who has turned to New Age healing crystals for the comfort she no longer receives from her shifty husband - retreats into flirtatiousness and pouting.

Ernie (Andrew Jenner) and Cookie (Claudine Burgos) Cusack, outwardly charming like supporting players in a movie adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, quickly lose decorum (and sanity) under pressure: Ernie resorts to panicked screaming while Cookie twitches. Finally, Lenny (Floyd Reichman) and Claire (Kay Steik) Ganz, the most mature pair in the story, are aghast at the Gormans' conspiracy but throw themselves into making it work. In the process, they revitalize their own bored union, particularly during the play's bravura climax, in which Lenny concocts a lengthy, mad and rather romantic alibi for the strange evening to a pair of suspicious cops (Pamela "P.J." Mohn, Scott Maddock).

"Rumors" isn't Simon at his best. The first act has some funny lines and good bits of business, especially Chris' convoluted phone conversation, well played by Kay, with a doctor yanked from a theater to consult about Charley. Reichman's Lenny, suffering whiplash and starving for a sumptuous meal that will never happen, makes a terrific entrance and sustains the most colorful performance in the show. But for the most part, act one is burdened with a great deal of setting up, throwing the best laughs to "Rumors"' latter half.

That's when the arrival of two police officers causes a near-slapstick reaction, including identity-switching and a cascade of fibbery no one can keep straight. This is the high-pressure, belly-laugh payoff one awaits for an hour or so, with its keen timing, sharp movements, a persistent doorbell and delicious tension.

Director Ben Sherman (also the president of Next Step Theatre, which was founded by rookie actors) and his dedicated, energetic cast are certainly up to the challenge, making it easy to forgive occasional fluffed lines. This is a production determined to please, and it does so very well.

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