Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy really lives up to its name with a sizzling season-opener on a 96-degree June evening. The stellar HSN cast, under the direction of John C. McIlwee, makes Broadway King of Comedy Neil Simon’s 1988 comic gem, Rumors, sparkle like the finest diamond (to mix metaphors) in Jeweler Harry Winston’s front window; and the fun continues June 5-8 and 11-15 in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Raleigh, NC.
The upper crust crumbles — to the audience's great delight — as four fashionably dressed, highly successful, upper-class couples arrive, two by two, at the posh suburban home of the deputy mayor of New York City. They have come, in gorgeous formal attire, to celebrate the 10th wedding anniversary of (the never-seen) Charlie and Myra Brock; but something is terribly wrong. Myra and the domestic staff are nowhere to be found; and Charlie is lying upstairs barely conscious in a pool of blood, having shot himself in the left earlobe, either by accident or in the course of a failed suicide attempt. No one knows what happened, and Charlie can’t explain … for the longest time.
Husband-and-wife attorneys Ken and Chris Gorman (Eric Carl and Lynda Clark) are the first to arrival, and their first impulse is to protect their friends Myra and Charlie by covering up any and all evidence of impropriety. The second couple to find out that all is not well in the Brock household is strait-laced CPA Lenny Ganz (Martin Thompson) and his wife, corporate attorney Claire Ganz (Mariette Booth). The whiff of scandal — real or imagined — triggers a panic in this frantic foursome.
While Ken and Chris and Lenny and Claire are desperately playing for time, until a woozy Charlie can tell them why he shot himself, two more couples walk into the lion’s den: Ernie and Cookie Cusak (Danny Norris and JoAnne Dickinson) and Glenn and Cassie Cooper (Kevin Ferguson and Hilary Russo). They are soon followed by Officers Ben Welch and Connie Pudney (Ryan Lee Nazionale and Meisha Gorley), who have come to conduct a routine investigation of an automobile accident, but soon find their suspicions aroused by the increasingly strange behavior of everyone at the 10th-anniversary party.
Wednesday night’s audience found Rumors delightful. Indeed, they gave the show a fervent standing ovation at its conclusion. Eric Carl and Lynda Clark are a prize pair of cuckoos as Ken and Chris Gorman. Danny Norris and JoAnne Dickinson, who play Ernie and Cookie Cusak, are delightful as a stuffy and hopelessly indiscrete psychologist and his zany wife, who hosts a TV cooking show and is subject to crippling back spasms at the most inopportune moments.
Kevin Ferguson is amusing as sleazy, philandering, publicity-conscious state-senate candidate Glenn Cooper; but Hilary Russo is a scream as his vengeful wife, Cassie, a kooky foul-mouthed broad from Jersey who believes in marital fidelity and the power of crystals, not necessarily in that order. Russo takes a small supporting role and makes it a showstopper, and so does Ryan Nazionale. His gritty comic cameo as the increasingly exasperated Officer Welch is a real scene-stealer.
Mariette Booth as Claire Ganz and Meisha Gorley as Officer Pudney are also entertaining; but the prize performance of the show is turned in by Martin Thompson, who really sinks his teeth into the juicy role of poor Lenny Ganz, an indignant CPA whose suffers an epic case of whiplash when his brand-new BMW is demolished by a hit-and-run driver in a red Porsche. Stiff-backed, with his head invariably inclined to the left to ease the agony in his aching neck, Thompson puts on a comic acting clinic—and brings down the house when Officer Welch gives him the gimlet eye and he desperate improvises an outrageously improbable story to explain what’s really going in the Brock home.
Director John McIlwee has assembled a cast of top Triangle theater veterans — and turned them loose. McIlwee not only superbly orchestrates the action of Rumors; but he also has designed a splendid set, with six — count them, six — doors to slam, plus a fabulous — absolutely fabulous — array of evening gowns for the women and tuxedos for the men. On Wednesday night, sound designer Brian L. Hunt sometimes struggled to get the telephone to ring on time; but lighting designer Curtis Lee Jones, costume mistresses Casey Watkins and Kristin Grieneisen, and properties mistress Robin Hughes all contributed their best efforts to make Rumors the comic hit of the summer. Don’t miss it.
Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents Rumors Wednesday-Saturday, June 4-7 and 11-14, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 8 and 15, at 3 p.m. in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601. $27.50, except $20 for Sunday matinees. Progress Energy Center Box Office: in-person sales and information 919/831-6060. See the presenter's site for other instructions about purchasing tickets. Group Rates 919/828-3726. Note: There will be ... complimentary beverages and desserts at all intermissions. Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org/. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=7675. Neil Simon: http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=7879 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0800319/(Internet Movie Database), and https://www.msu.edu/~pelowsk1/neilsimon/ (Unofficial Neil Simon Home Page) [inactive 3/10].