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"Rumors' rests on talent of flawless fibbers

Neil Simon's play is sure to inspire guffaws. The only caveat: coarse, but fitting, language.

Step 1: Extend your right index finger and curl the rest of your hand into a fist.

Step 2: Pick up the telephone with your left hand, place the receiver to your ear; dial (352) 683-5113; order tickets to Stage West Community Playhouse's production of Neil Simon's Rumors.

Step 3: Don't drink any water the day you go to the show because you're going to laugh so hard, you may lose control and embarrass yourself.

Heads up for the squeamish: This show contains profane language we don't print in this newspaper, namely the "f," "g--d---" and "s" words. The words fit the emotions of the moment _ exasperation, fear, frustration _ but some may find them so offensive as to ruin the rest of the evening.

Even so, I didn't notice anyone walking out at opening night Thursday. I did hear gales of laughter and after-show comments that this was the best show of the year at Stage West.

Credit any number of reasons: Simon's clever and sophisticated script; the characters' outrageous shenanigans; impeccable casting; terrific, near-flawless performances; and, perhaps most important, brilliant direction by the ever-dependable Saul Leibner, arguably the region's best when it comes to comedy.

Rumors is about four successful New York couples who have been invited to the home of New York City deputy mayor Charlie Brock to celebrate the Brocks' 10th wedding anniversary. When the first pair, Chris and Ken Gorman (Betsy Glasson and Steven Kimball) arrive, they find their elusive host Charlie upstairs on his bed with his earlobe shot off and his wife, Myra, nowhere to be found.

To avoid scandal, the Gormans decide to fib to the other guests about Charlie's condition and Myra's absence. Of course, the newcomers are suspicious, imagine the worst and start making up lies and spreading rumors about Charlie, Myra and other mutual friends on their own.

The driving force in other Simon plays is characterization, but this one, like all good farce, is propelled by the twists and turns of the story line. The challenge to both players and director is to keep the plot moving while keeping the characters interesting as individuals, and this cast does both with urbane assurance and flair.

Former movie and television actor and recent California transplant Sam Petricone sparks this revved-up machine in the role of Lenny Ganz, Charlie's accountant. Petricone's timing is impeccable and his body language right on the mark, never too much and never too little.

Lenny is the most agitated of Charlie's pals, but he's blessed with a perfect foil in his wife, Claire, played with stylish drollness by Toni Marie Starling. Just when Lenny seems ready to fly into orbit, Ms. Starling's Claire brings him back down to earth with a well-placed put-down and ever-so-subtle smirk.

Matthew Veasey does his best stage performance to date as Ernie Cusack, Charlie's analyst. Veasey's Ernie is animated without going over the top, thanks again to Leibner's excellent direction and Veasey's own acting instincts. Andrea Gleason is marvelous as his wife, Cookie, the hostess of a television cooking show who is forced into a busman's holiday when the Brocks' cook and butler disappear.

Michael Stubbs is fine as the politically ambitious Glenn Cooper, and Jackie Tompkins plays a convincing vamp as his kooky wife, Cassie. Sonny Thomas is a credible cop in the role of Officer Welch, backed up by Cheryl Nixon as Officer Pudney.

This is an ensemble piece, and the members of this cast go together like the fingers in an elegant, elbow-length white glove.

A solid two-story set by Sig Stock and crew, great costuming by Mollie Lutz and staff, timely lights by Paul Schlobohm, on-cue sound by Dalton Benson and good work by the rest of the sizable crew come together to complete what will certainly be a contender come HAMI awards night in August.

Except for those who object to ribald language, Rumors should be an enjoyable experience.