Rumors Has It

Pat Craig
San Jose Mercury News
March 28, 2012

Rumors, opening Tuesday at Walnut Creek's Center REPertory Company, could be Neil Simon's most skillfully crafted farce. It skewers a collection of rich and upwardly mobile married couples who have gathered in a grand suburban home to celebrate the 10th anniversary of one of their own.

And, since all the partygoers are high-profile, high-status folks who believe they have much to lose if word of any of this gets out, they insist on keeping the whole thing hush-hush.

But they are lousy at keeping secrets and even worse at being spin doctors.

So, before long, the night gets as messy as a fastball landing in a bowl of pasta sauce, giving Simon claim to a hysterical and truly American farce.

The 1988 comedy is also quite suburban in its sensibilities, lambasting the frequent rituals and passions of those who possess more money than common sense.

Center REP artistic director Michael Butler, who plays Ernie, a bemused psychologist who gets reluctantly involved in the suburban silliness as it explodes around him, is pleased to be part of a cast he describes as "comic Jedi."

Timothy Near, who directs the show, says Rumors is a classic because the plot is motivated by a positive human impulse: the desire to take care of a friend in trouble. The harder they try to do good, the deeper they dig an inescapable hole for themselves. Their plight is silly but incredibly funny; I have never directed a play that makes me laugh so much."

Rumors Have It, Director is Ahead of the Pack

Lou Fancher
Walnut Creek Patch
March 26, 2012

Leave it to Bay Area theater director Timothy Near to be a mile ahead of the wagon.

On March 30th, Rumors, the wickedly amusing Neil Simon play she is directing for Center REP, opens at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek.

Premiered on Broadway in 1988, the play presents a timeless social conundrum: What do friends do when they find themselves in a tight spot? It's truth and consequences, delivered in one hailarious/biting package.

The tight spot is a dinner party where the hostess is missing, the host has shot himself in the head, and the guests, overly concerned with publicity, try to invent a believable narrative.

"We've all helped someone and the more we helped, the worse it got," Near says. "I like to call it a coverup comedy."

For Near, timing is everything.

"It's so important. You can string something out too long if you set too slow a pace," she warns, before correcting herself and saying timing is almost everything.

"No matter what, I want to discover and explore the humanity, the universal human motivations that drive the story of the play," Near insists.

That sense of exploraiton and investigation, is typical of the independent director and director emeritus of San Jose Repertory (SJR).

In 2009, after 21 years leading SJR and building a new facility for the company, she dove into freelancing with a flourish.

I can invest in a way that you can't when you are an artistic director," she says. "Being an A.D. is like running a small country, you have a million things pulling you away."

Her independent status allowed her to develop The Proud, a new work with playwright Aaron Loeb, that put the post-traumatic stress disorder of American Iraq War veterans center stage; well before recent international headlines did the same. They are planning to produce the work - also a collaboration with Krissy Keefer's Dance Brigade - in the Bay Area and New York City.

Center REP is the latest beneficiary of her forward-thinking expertise and for Near, the appreciative feeling is mutual, especially because it involves working with her husband, Michael Butler, the company's artistic director.

"This is our 10th show that I've directed him, so obviously we like it," she laughs. "There's a total trust and respect. There's a shared vocabulary: a shorthand way of communicating that makes it fun. I work with [him] because there's nothing difficult about it."

Contrary to a grim, Hollywood-warped idea of life in the theater, Near breezes along, touching on subjects from casting to character development to cantankerous reviews as if they are play structures in a park.

Casting, she says, is instinctual.

"There's something that's mysterious and magical about talent. It's most exciting!" she exclaims.

Character development is technical. To achieve what she requires, Near looks for an actor's ability to listen, to analyze the world and bring it to the work, plus solid comic timing and a strong connection to the truth.

With Rumors, Near is particularly sensitive to over- or under-stepping Simon's biting humor.

"You can go way out on the edge with this, but you have to keep it real. It has to be grounded in truth - otherwise farce is not funny," she says.

As an actress, Near never looked at reviews, thinking the external voices might crowd herhead during a performance. But as a director, she finds it "fulfilling" to hear reactions and has learned to "pick through" reviews for what intersts her.

Underscoring her comments is a conviction that people are inherently creative. Like the characters on stage, she believes everyone has had the experience of trying to write, tell or live a story-and getting torn apart in the process.

It's still a mess at the end, but they all respect each other more," she says, about the play's closing scenes and, perhaps, about everyday life.