Sometimes I wonder if there aren't two Neil Simons. There's the one who writes autobiographical plays, which are funny in a touching way and often courageous in exploring material that must be difficult for him.
Then there's The Other Neil Simon, who turns out comedies with no soul, where every other line is intended to get a laugh, as if to meet some abstract quota. This is the one who wrote "Rumors."
This Simon seems to send a stock boy flying around a room in which jokes are stored in bins. In one there's infantile humor having to do with names rhyming or starting with the same letter. Another bin has running gags about pains in various parts of the characters' anatomies.
One bin has actual humor, but there wasn't much in it, unlike the one with a heavy inventory of Name Brand Humor, lines that work on the assumption that naming a product automatically gets a laugh. Sample: "I was so desperate for a cigarette I lit a Q-Tip."
Simon himself is a Name Brand Product. Based on previous experiences, the audience has come to laugh. Like tinder, the least spark sets them off.
Ostensibly, "Rumors" is about an anniversary party at which The Husband has just tried to kill himself and The Wife is nowhere to be found. The guests scurry to keep each other from discovering this. The ensuing confusion and general hysteria are probably what made Simon call the play a farce. But farce is mathematical in its logic. It has to be handled with the precision and elegance of a rapier. "Rumors" is scattershot.
The cast expends superhuman energy in selling the jokes. The play starts at a pitch of near insanity and is afraid to relax for a second, lest anyone notice it's all fake. The only letup comes when Ken Howard and Lisa Banes, a bitterly unhappy couple, arrives.
They are the only ones who have a reality apart from the artificial situation in which they find themselves, and their humor has weight.
Jessica Walter spits out her lines with an angry edge, Joyce Van Patten has a goony likeability and the effervescent Christine Baranski, as usual, is consistently funny even when what she has to do is just plain stupid. Ron Leibman, who hammers the jokes home all evening long, has an extremely un-funny monologue at the end that he does so maniacally it leaves you dumbfounded. Charles Brown has real strength as a policeman.
Tony Straiges' set is classy and Joseph G. Aulisi's costumes, particularly the women's party dresses, are wittily stylish. But you have the feeling that Gene Saks didn't so much direct the cast as whip them into a frenzy.
You wonder if they're not exhausting themselves and us to make up for the fact that The Other Simon runs on automatic pilot.
Broadway has something to cheer about again! Rumors that Neil Simon has taken a turn for the serious have been greatly exaggerated as the report of Mark Twain's death, and last night we had "Rumors" at the Broadhurst Theater to put the matter straight.
The "Brighton Beach Trilogy," the semi-autobiographical trio of plays with which Simon has of late been regaling us, is a long way removed from the narrow farce of "Rumors," although they all possess the same characteristic turn of wit, and the same blissful sense of that core of the ridiculous that so often lies naughtily embedded in the commonplace.
A workable difference between farce and comedy - a difference so often misinterpreted - could be that farce is about people while comedy is about life. In neither instance do the people or the life have to be real - but it has been known to help.
In "Rumors," Simon delivers an unlikely situation with certain preposterous propositions and milks it full cream ahead as if cholesterol had no tomorrow.
It is the prosperous house of a deputy mayor of New York City and his wife (whom, we are later relieved to learn are happily of independent means, so corruption does not raise its ugly head) - who have invited a few rich friends over to their mini-mansion to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary.
The friends in question are the couple's lawyer and his wife, their accountant, their psychiatrist, with both their attendant spouses, and, as a final couple, a henpecked husband running both for state senator and from his morbidly suspicious wife.
The lawyer couple is the first to arrive - in fact they arrive before we do, as an audience. And when we meet them they are in a tizzy.
The deputy mayor has shot himself in the head in an apparent suicide attempt, and the wife is missing, as are the servants. The prospective dinner is, at the very least, thrown into some jeopardy. Could be a tragedy. But it won't be.
Now, for wholly obscure reasons, the lawyer decides on a cover-up - although it is instantly established that the off-stage hero (whom, like his wife, we never do get to meet) missed the main event, and has inflicted no more damage on himself than powder burns and a bloody bullet through an earlobe (even Van Gogh would have done a cleaner job) after which he conked himself out with an unwise dosage of Valium.
Now, the cover-up decided upon, the rest of the play follows as night follows day, as man shows his infinite capacity for making pains.
As each of the incoming couples arrive, the obfuscation becomes blurrier and blurrier and more fantasticated. Some are told part of the truth, some are not.
In a final spiral of the absurd, the plot launches itself into the insanity of inner space. And quite convincingly - given the impossible, but by now irrelevantly forgivable, initial premise.
It is a Chinese box of a play, a house of cards, every one of them a knave. And for Simon's tin-typed and computerized characters foibles are the norm; they feed on them.
Totally frivolous, this maze of mendacity is light, frothy and fun. It is as significant as a cream puff and just about as nourishing. But beautifully baked and cunningly filled.
The baking is done by Simon himself - how good he is in pin-pointing such human trials and tribulations as the difficulty of opening a plastic bag of pretzels - the filling is left to the expert hands of the director Gene Saks and the wonderfully dextrous actors gathered around him.
The staging's slick and basic Saks appeal is augmented by the sumptuously commonplace piece of real estate embodied in Tony Straige's settings, and the couturier-style costumes (all cheap chic but with a savingly vulgar grace note of satire) by Joseph G. Aulisi.
Much of the beauty of the beast comes from its grotesquerie and pacing and here Simon and Saks have worked arm in arm a three-legged race of near-genius. It is like a cuckoo clock with a quartz movement.
The actors give every appearance of having the time of their lives. Ron Leibman, as the desperate accountant direct from three IRS audits and a car crash, probably has the best of it, particularly in his inspired and breathless summing up which takes spontaneity to new heights of contrivance.
But everyone is fun. Jessica Walter is Leibman's wife, balancing him like a counterweight, and Mark Nelson as a nerdy lawyer deaf to common sense. Christine Baranski, speaking softly and carrying a big schtik, dazzles with bemusing silliness.
Andre Gregory, seeming like a ruluctant visitor from group therapy, bumbles disarmingly as the dim psychiatrist, and Joyce Van Patten, as his wife racked with back spasms and good nature, charms.
Ken Howard makes an authoritatively bovine political aspirant, wrestling matched with Lisa Banes, his pahtologically jealous wife complete with her pet crystal, who, with the bluff Charles Brown as a no-nonsense cop, seem equally convincing.
The whole thing is a piece of artistry rather than a work of art, but it will brighten a gloomy night and provoke instant and intense merriment without the danger of afterthought.
What it intends to do may be nothing, but how it does it is really something.
If there is a prevailing whine among mavens of New York humor, it is this: Why can't Neil Simon and Woody Allen go back to just being funny? Mr. Simon, at least for the moment, is heeding the complaint. After devoting recent seasons to the introspective autobiographical trilogy that culminated in ''Broadway Bound,'' the playwright has returned to the Broadhurst with ''Rumors,'' a self-described farce that has nothing on its mind except making the audience laugh. And not exactly in the Moliere manner. Maybe I've led a charmed life, but I can't recall hearing this many toilet jokes since the ninth grade.
Act I of ''Rumors'' is sometimes as funny as it wants to be, too - provided that you're in so slaphappy a mood that even Jackie Mason might seem too taxing, and provided that either Ron Leibman or Christine Baranski is kvelling at center stage. Act II? Well, Mr. Simon may have been too long away from his original calling; a lot of his gag machinery is rusty. ''Rumors'' will be most satisfying to those who wish to partake of an after-theater dinner at 9 o'clock.
Mr. Leibman and Ms. Baranski, both priceless nuts, play two of eight guests (four nouveau riche couples) who appear in formal wear for a 10th-anniversary party in Sneden's Landing, only to discover that their hosts have been incapacitated by mysterious events involving gunshots. What to do? Ms. Baranski, cigarette-free for 18 months, takes to smoking Q-Tips, scratching her arm pits (an outbreak of hives), chug-a-lugging vodka and high-tailing it (literally so, in one instance) to the much-discussed bathroom. While this actress has certainly played more elegant roles in ''The Real Thing'' and ''It's Only a Play,'' she has never previously been asked to demonstrate how one has a nervous breakdown while wearing a tight gown designed (by Joseph G. Aulisi) in the sadistic fashion of Christian Lacroix. Ms. Baranski shakes a lot, but with such constriction of movement she seems to be twittering to death.
As for Mr. Leibman, he starts getting laughs before his first entrance, which is preceded by the news that he has suffered whiplash in a collision that mangled his prized new BMW. The idea of an agitated Ron Leibman with a busted German car and neck (very much in that order of importance) is hilarious even to anticipate, and the actual spectacle doesn't disappoint. His head tilting at a 90-degree angle, his eyes aflame with rage, the actor arrives barking and writhing, soon to reach a level of red-faced farcical apoplexy that recalls the valedictory performance style of Zero Mostel. To say that Mr. Leibman doesn't suffer fools gladly is an understatement; he doesn't suffer anyone or anything gladly, whether his long-suffering, long-gossiping wife (a good-natured performance by Jessica Walter) or a cellophane bag of pretzels that steadfastly refuses to yield to the persistent, painful tug of his teeth.
While one could argue that Mr. Leibman goes overboard in ''Rumors,'' such cavils miss the point. This actor is the soul of farce, a form to be prized for its violent comic cataclysms, not for its psychological realism or depth. One only wishes the energy level and surreal interior logic of Mr. Leibman's performance were matched by that of the script. Farce is a difficult proposition - Michael Frayn's ''Noises Off'' is the only successful one on Broadway in this decade - and Mr. Simon hasn't really tackled it. ''Rumors'' is to farce what a sitcom is to comedy.
The play does possess an embryonic farcical situation. The party guests are desperate to hush up the scandal, if that's what it is, that surrounds their unseen host, a New York deputy mayor. But Mr. Simon never creates the real sense of jeopardy necessary to make his premise spin into a riotous plot. For much of Act I, the party's early arrivals try to keep the host's travails secret from the later arrivals - but why should good friends bother to hide the obvious from one another? The dissembling and hysteria seem unjustified and, as a result, unfunny. When police officers (Charles Brown and Cynthia Darlow) arrive in Act II, they not only commit the criminal act of driving Mr. Leibman offstage but also prove to be burlesque police officers, far too unthreatening to prompt yet another hyperbolic frenzy of panic. Farce is meant to be cartoonish to the audience, but if the characters aren't fully locked into their own ridiculous situation, the air goes right out of the cartoon's balloons.
It's an indication of the laziness of Mr. Simon's writing that he doesn't capitalize on his own basic setup. Though we constantly hear of seamy rumors swirling about the characters, the playwright never gets to the bottom of the rumors and never works them ingeniously into the action. While Tony Straiges's living-room setting presents us with seven doors on two levels, ''Rumors'' never orchestrates all those doors into the fugue of syncopated slamming that any farce audience is entitled to expect.
Rather than do the exacting work required to craft a farce, Mr. Simon casually empties out a file cabinet's worth of often tangentially relevant jokes. As long as the lines are funny, one can't complain that there's scant play to support them. But when the writing falls flat, ''Rumors'' has nothing except Mr. Leibman and Ms. Baranski to drive it, and they are too frequently eclipsed by lesser clowns. In contrast to Mr. Leibman's physical calamity, those enacted by Mark Nelson (temporary deafness), Andre Gregory (burned fingers) and Joyce Van Patten (chronic back spasms) sooner or later become wildly overworked. The play's ostensibly topical references (to ''Platoon,'' Trivial Pursuit and Claus von Bulow) sound fatigued, as do the interminable phone calls from far-flung characters we never meet.
Gene Saks's production, whose uneven cast also includes a strained Ken Howard and Lisa Banes, takes its cue from the script. High decibels and frantic activity frequently substitute for comic invention; at the Act I curtain, most of the cast comes on stage not because the story really calls for it but instead with the hope that true comic chaos might somehow be simulated by a furious outbreak of yelling and mugging. By Act II, even Mr. Leibman is asked to pump up a climactic speech by jumping maniacally up and down. Wonderful as it is to watch the performer struggle with whiplash in Act I, his later efforts to induce it in the audience substitute the pain of comic desperation for what had earlier and so promisingly been a joke.