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USC's production 'Rumors' is an education in farce for students and laughs for the crowd

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USC theatre major Jordan Pontelandolfo as Chris in the upcoming "Rumors," a Neil Simon play. Provided/Jason Ayer

Almost every theater student at the University of South Carolina must pass through professor David Britt’s introductory acting classes. As a result, he feels great responsibility to prepare them appropriately through his play selections for a professional career.

That means guiding them through prestigious Shakespearian drama and progressive, social-issue confronting plays one might find at regional theaters, but it also means farce, in all its crowd-pleasing glory. Britt’s production of Neil Simon’s 1988 comedy “Rumors,” which opens at the university’s Drayton Hall Theatre on Oct. 15, is an example of just that.

"We wanted to do a comedy," Britt said. "It's important to learn how to deliver a comedic monologue, how to set up a joke, and how to do farce."

Luckily, “Rumors” and other farces — which can be broadly described as a subgenre of comedy distinguished by improbable situations, physical comedy, and exaggerated action, often as a satire of society — are often crowd pleasers as well. The premise of “Rumors” involves four affluent couples arriving for a party at the posh home of an influential politician. Shots are fired, hosts go missing, a coverup is hatched, the police arrive, and, well, farce ensues.

Britt, who is directing the play, knows his way around Simon. He has directed a number of the acclaimed author's works locally over the past decade, including a trilogy of autobiographical Simon plays and “The Odd Couple.”

Simon, who died at 91 in 2018, still holds the record for the most combined Tony and Oscar nominations. Having hit a creative peak in the 1980s with a trilogy of increasingly introspective and autobiographical plays, the author took a sharp turn towards farce with “Rumors.”

Britt has always held the playwright in high regard. Beginning as a sketch comedy writer for television in the 1950s, Simon developed a character-centric, literate style of domestic comedy in his stage plays.

"(It) has influenced almost everything we've seen on TV since," Britt said. "Sitcoms from 'Frasier' to 'Designing Women,' that style that's so familiar. It's not just being funny - it's how the actor approaches (the material) in a serious way. Comedy comes out of circumstance, and reactions to actions."

With his cast, Britt stressed to his cast they needed to be invested.

“If you really do believe (the action on stage) then we are able to laugh,” he explained.

Though, there were more practical things he had to work on as well — like the generational jargon gap between today’s college students and the ‘80s. Britt shared that he had to explain “yuppie” to his cast, the trend of young urban professionals and their conspicuous consumption that was both idolized and vilified.

“Rumors” characters fit neatly into that mold.

“One couple has a brand new BMW, for example,” Britt explained. “They come in and they want to brag to their friends, and compare their status. They are ready to impress - but they're humbled. They’re shaken down to where they are little scaredy-cats… they find out what pride is, and what bragging is. They hold on to that as long as possible. The comedy comes when we start to see the cracks (in the facade.)”

The play’s cast includes Brandon Badinski, John Boulay, Jesse Breazeale, Zoe Chan, Billy Cheek, Koby Hall, Andie Lowe, Caroline McGee, Jordan Pontelandolfo and Isabella Stenz, five of whom are making their mainstage debut.

"(Spectators are) going to laugh, and they're going to enjoy seeing these young people taking on these characters, and enjoying being comedians. It's just a good time, and everyone will leave quoting something that someone said,” the director shared.

Design students in the graduate Master of Fine Arts program have significant roles in the production as well, including Kyla Little as costume designer and Lawrence Ware as lighting designer. Britt promised a stylistic look that channels the excesses of the ‘80s, between distinctive hairstyles for each character, shoulder pads and flashy jewelry. He compared it to the ‘80s soap opera “Dynasty.”

“Everything is big. Excessive. Lavish. There's a lot of big hair,” he said.

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