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May 21, 2015

UT brings comedy center stage

For the first time in six years, main stage comedy has come to University Theater (UT) with Neil Simon’s Rumors, premiering this weekend. While other performance outlets on campus like Theater[24], Off-Off Campus, Commedia, and New Work Week specialize in comedy, UChicago’s most prominent theater group has traditionally played it serious. “We’re breaking ground on this,” Hearn said. “And I hope it shows that comedies can be done and are something that we ought to do.”

Unlike most of the American playwright’s semi-autobiographical, neurotic comedies, Rumors—a product of the ’80s—is Simon’s first farce. The premise: Four couples arrive at the 10th-anniversary dinner party for the deputy mayor of New York only to find his wife missing, dinner uncooked, and the deputy himself shot through the ear. Involvement in an attempted suicide would destroy the reputations of hosts and guests alike, so they resort to lies, rumors, and outrageously ridiculous cover-up stories.

“Instead of the characters really coming into conflict with one another and figuring out something about themselves, the characters more or less find themselves pushed forward by a situation that they have no control in, except to make it worse,” said director Alex Hearn, a second-year in the College.

The entire show is an increasingly precarious fabrication. Slowly and painfully, upper-crust socialites enter the scene—women who distinguish their dresses based on the charity benefit that they wore them to and men who identify themselves based on country-club membership. Deals are struck as the couples recruit their friends in a desperate bid to fool everyone present. The audience freezes in anticipation of hearing what seemingly impromptu explanation will slip out of the characters’ mouths next.

“Especially for Neil Simon, his dialogue, even though it’s written in American English—it’s almost like a dialect unto itself,” Hearn said. “The sarcasm that’s written into it—it’s very punchy, very specific. It plays on a lot of archetypes. Trying to find those archetypes without pressing them onto the actors has been an interesting, interesting challenge.”

While the man who knows the truth of these mysterious circumstances lies bleeding and unattended in an upstairs bedroom, the guests preoccupy themselves with their own developing ailments—whiplash, back injuries, burnt hands, cigarette addictions, and marital disputes. The entire motley crew readily hits the floor to search for a pair of lost earrings, yet it doesn’t make any attempt to check on the deputy.

Although the large, two-floor set—unusual for UT, which typically features abstract and minimalist arrangements—is beautifully crafted, it is astoundingly unremarkable: It’s just a slightly warped version of your everyday living room, and thus a perfect manifestation of the absurd. “One of my favorite aspects about the set is that the walls are sort of skewed outwards,” Hearn said. “So it’s performative—subtly performative—because I think that farces are just a skewing of our usual life. We’re sort of stretched by our conditions in a way that we don’t really notice but just gets at us over time.”

Each and every wood grain on the set’s floor was hand-painted over several weeks by dedicated set designer Gabi Mulder, also a second-year in the College. Her detailing is precise and easy to overlook. Those photographs hanging in the living room? They were taken in Stephens Landing, NY, where Rumors is set. Be sure to also watch out for the neat car-headlights effect through the first floor window and the delicate array of domestic props. (During Monday night’s rehearsal, the cast actually broke more props than during all of production combined—all of which had to be replaced. But Hearn was pleased: It meant the actors were highly energized.)

“I think it’s really important that this is the first comedy that UT has done in a really long time—to remind people that they should be able to go to the theater and laugh and have fun,” said production manager and second-year Savannah Smith.

This incredibly self-aware Gatsby-meets-“Who’s on First?” circus of a production is a farce well executed and well worth the time. By the end of the second act, the guests forsake all control of their situation, which culminates in a jaw-dropping monologue and surprise ending. Attend this weekend and laugh as UT ushers in a new era of comedy on its main stage.

May 22 at 7:30 p.m., May 23 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Logan Center Theater East, tickets $6 in advance or $8 at the door.

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