Rumors was written during a period of intense personal misery for its author, Neil Simon, who at the time of writing was already a famous and successful dramatist. Prior to completing the play, one of his daughters from an early marriage with the dancer Joan Baim (dead at 32 of cancer) lost her husband in a car crash. Simon had also married for the second time since Baim’s death, and was divorced again. He and the much younger Diane Lander had met at a Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, where she was working the cosmetics counter. The couple married in 1987, but the marriage would last only a year and a half.
“It seemed like rough going, “Simon admitted in an interview. “And I said,” in 1988, “I wanted to work, because work is always a cathartic process for me, and I thought it would be really good just to get into a comedy.”
That comedy was Rumors, a two-act lightning bolt of a farce that Simon said he wrote “to sort of go back and write just out-and-out funny, because it's what I felt I needed in my own life.” The play relies on endless situational comedy bits – revolving doors, kitchen gags, bathroom mishaps, botched suicides, clueless police, and more – to tell the outwardly goofy story of four couples trapped in a well-to-do social party gone haywire.
Simon calls the play a “farce”. His model is Molière, the French dramatist who, in the 17th century, transformed French farce from a provincial form of glorified slapstick into a vehicle for high theatrical experiment.
Farce had originally been performed with masks, but Molière’s efforts in the genre probably employed only a thin layer of white makeup or distinctive facial hair. Nevertheless, his characters, like those in the long tradition of farce going back to ancient Greece, were “types” drawn from society in order to ridicule the sordid elements of the author’s social milieu. In a modern context, Simon’s characters also represent types: the lawyer, the accountant, the wife obsessed with appearances, the psychiatrist, the TV chef, and the befuddled cop.
It is the nature of farce as a genre to underwrite hilarity with dread. Rumors is a comedy, but there are elements of tragedy in it as well, mostly copied, we might speculate, from life. The desperate bickering between Glenn and Cassie Cooper feels deeply autobiographical in its specificity and misunderstanding, as though it had been drawn verbatim from Simon’s own eroding marriages. The crunched up side of Lenny Ganz’s BMW echoes, perhaps perversely, the auto death of Simon’s daughter’s husband, although Ganz walks away from his scrape. Even the unexplained absence of Myra Brock recalls Simon’s father, who Simon has said was often absent from the household for long stretches of time with no explanation.
Rumors was an intense success for Simon, breathing new life into his career. It did not premiere in New York City, but in San Diego. When it arrived on the east coast, it opened at the Broadhurst, where it played 535 times. In the wake of its glowing reception, Simon remarried with Mason and went on to produce the most mature, well-rounded play of his life in Lost in Yonkers (1990), which won him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.