Seen here are "Rumors" cast members (back row, from left) Brian Smith of Center City, Brenna McBride of Rosemont, Joseph Carney of Manayunk, Jean Lausten of Doylestown, Rhonda Goldstein of Wynnewood and (front row, from left) Steve Negro of Center City, Norma Kider of Plymouth Meeting and Jim Golden of Merion.

by Hugh Hunter

“Rumors” (1988), now running at Old Academy Players in East Falls, is a self-described farce that verges on slapstick. Director Barbara Pease Weber makes the most of a Neil Simon script that is both funny and troubled.

Here is the story: A group of friends plan to celebrate the 10th wedding anniversary of Charles Brock, the deputy mayor, and his wife Myra. But as they arrive they discover Myra is missing and Charles has shot himself in the ear.

His friends are desperate to cover-up the matter. Chris (Jean Laustsen) and Ken (Jim Golden) are a pair of high flying lawyers, comically incapable of dealing with the crisis at hand. Claire (Brenna McBride) and Lenny (Steve Negro) arrive. Fresh from the car crash, all they can do is nurse their separate injuries.

Later we meet Cookie (Norma Kider), a TV cook show hostess, and her husband Ernie (Joseph Carney), a well intentioned but ineffectual psychiatrist. The final couple is Glen (Brian Smith), a professional politician, and Cassie (Rhonda Goldstein), his abused and abusive wife.

The lies and subterfuges pile up until the friends literally trip over each other. The actors are a hoot. I loved watching them, and with just a little story tweaking, anyone could be “the star.”  Finally, no-nonsense, Officer Welch (Rocco Amato) arrives and brings these capers to a preposterous conclusion.

A satirical image emerges. We are in a wealthy New York suburb. These bunglers are the “successful” people — lawyers, doctors, politicians, television stars — the utterly self-absorbed, newly rich. Their marriages seem even more funny once you realize that these couples will probably stay together.

But is “Rumors” really a play? The Old Academy production is cerebral and amusing. But for me, Neil Simon’s best works are his character-driven, dark comedies. “Rumors” feels more like a throwback to his Sid Caesar days of screwball humor.

Even his story telling format here is reminiscent of ’50s television. Four married couples enter Charlie’s home in measured succession, and each couple gets the chance to do their shtick. The steady parade of oddballs keep you entertained in cabaret fashion.

But from the standpoint of drama, “Rumors” never shakes off its main problem. Why is the threat of a scandal so important that all these people are desperate to cover it up? What is their stake in the matter? Even as you are being entertained, you realize that all this antic behavior is unmotivated.

Neil Simon subtitles “Rumors” as “a farce.” But even farce, with all its exaggerations, has its own world of plausibility. With “Rumors,” the story premise is merely a pretext that gives a theater troupe an excuse to perform.

Old Academy Players is located at 3540-44 Indian Queen Lane. “Rumors” will run through June 26. Reservations at 215-843-1109.