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`Rumors': mad mel'ee from Neil Simon. Broadway veteran tries out farce, and it's hilarious

Rumors Farce by Neil Simon. Directed by Gene Saks. Brush up your laughter. Neil (Doc) Simon is back in town with a sure-fire prescription for the Broadway blahs.

The Brighton Beach memoirist, who has not been Broadway bound since 1986, has turned his hand to farce. And a dab hand it proves to be.

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While ``Rumors,'' at the Broadhurst Theatre, may not win any prestigious awards, the response of a preview audience left no doubt that it could be a winner in the hilarity sweepstakes.

If memory serves, it was France's Feydeau whose recipe for farce ran something as follows: You introduce two or more characters who never should meet and then devise ways for their inevitable meetings.

``Rumors'' follows a somewhat different course. Charlie and his wife, Myra, remain the invisible presences through the play's two short acts. Explaining their nonappearance tasks all the ingenuity and prevaricatory skill of the friends assembled at their posh Sneden's Landing (N.Y.) home to help celebrate the couple's 10th wedding anniversary.

First on the scene are Chris and Ken Gorman (Christine Baranski and Mark Nelson). Ken's discovery that Charlie has accidentally shot himself, inflicting a superficial wound, is sufficiently suspicious in and of itself. The fact that Myra has inexplicably disappeared compounds a mystery that feeds omnivorously on the rumors of the title.

The rumors and their wildly impromptu explanations are soon engulfing the other guests: Claire and Lenny Ganz (Jessica Walter and Ron Leibman), Cookie and Ernie Cusack (Joyce Van Patten and Andre Gregory), and Glenn and Cassie Cooper (Ken Howard and Lisa Banes).

``Rumors'' is a mad mel'ee of Simon jokes and physical comedy, intricately orchestrated and choreographed by director Gene Saks. With four couples, five doors, and a staircase, the agile cast keeps scampering from crisis to crisis and gag to gag.

The multiple disasters include an offstage car crash, the lack of any refreshment (``No canap'es, no nuts, no pretzels''), the sound of a gunshot, a disappeared Oriental domestic, a temporary case of mistaken identity, and so forth and so on.

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Act II brings the law in the persons of Officers Welch and Pudney (Charles Brown and Cynthia Darlow). To climax their interrogation, Lenny offers a high-velocity stacatto account that satisfies the cops, convulses the audience, and should win Mr. Leibman more than one award. Otherwise, ``Rumors'' is, in the main, a comically balanced ensemble effort. The glorious Miss Baransky revels in the role of the dizzy Chris, while Mr. Nelson explains and expostulates until a second offstage gunshot renders him temporarily deaf.

In passing, a reporter should note that there's enough shouting at the Broadhurst to break the gauge on a decibel meter (if decibel meters have gauges). But one must admit that louder is frequently funnier.

Mr. Howard, as a candidate for the New York State Senate, and Miss Banes, as the wife who suspects his infidelity (more rumors), expand the evening's rough and tumble. Miss Van Patten as the kooky Cookie, who saves the party with her dinner, and Mr. Gregory as a therapist who attempts a group session by phone - a very busy instrument - respond enthusiastically to the Simon-Saks demands, as do Mr. Brown and Miss Darlow in their performance of constabulary duties.

As a clockwork display of the varieties of comic desperation, ``Rumors'' aims hard and sometimes strikes low. But Simon's types are as readily recognizable as the familiar dimensions of Tony Straiges's duplex setting - an accommodation equal to any farcical emergency. The production has been brightly lit by Tharon Musser and wittily costumed by Joseph G. Aulisi.

If there is a fragment of seriousness to ``Rumors,'' it may have to do with the fragility of the social contract and the desperate measures frail human beings can find themselves driven to in their efforts to preserve it. But that may be no more than a rumor.

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