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THEATER NOTES

Director on His Toes to Choreograph a Comedy

Richard Kline says staging the farcical 'Rumors' will require strict attention to tempo and timing.

June 27, 1996|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Timing is a prime tool in making comedy work. In his memoirs, director Robert Lewis describes the several hours Bert Lahr took to work out a simple run around a table in the musical "Foxy." At one point, Lahr decided that backing into a hot stove during the run would be funny, and that took another hour to establish in the rapid chain of action. The run never varied, and always got its laughs.

It all looks so simple to an audience.

Director Richard Kline has spent a career absorbing and consolidating this and all the other tools of creative comedy. Kline, remembered as the neighbor in "Three's Company," has also become popular as a director of stage comedies, notably his award-winning hit production of Noel Coward's "Present Laughter" in Hollywood a few years ago. Now he's applying these insights to a revival of Neil Simon's "Rumors," starring Bernie Kopell, at Sherman Oaks' Whitefire Theatre.

Kline has had a long experience with Simon's work, both as an actor and director, including being what he calls the "Canadian Jake" for six months in Simon's "Jake's Women." His longtime interest in comedy goes back as far as college: His masters' thesis at Northwestern University, he said, was a translation of a farce by Georges Feydeau, the world master of that deceptively simple genre.

Of course, Simon's "Rumors" is a farce, the playwright's only true venture into the form. The play typically involves a sizable cast, numerous doors, which are frequently slammed open or shut, with a multitude of entrances and exits. That's one of the reasons Kline and Kopell decided to bring the play to Ventura Boulevard.

"It's my cup of tea," Kline said. "However, once I got into the rehearsal process, I realized what people sometimes forget. Farce, especially this type of pure farce, is a very difficult, almost choreographic process. It's practically mathematical. To direct it, especially on a small stage in this 99-seat situation, with 10 actors to find places for, is really quite a task."

Kopell, of "Love Boat" renown, played this Simon farce at Florida's popular Jupiter Theatre. He said that one reason the play is attractive to him, even "addictive," is a special quality that Simon brings to comic dialogue.

"It's the music of Neil Simon's writing," Kopell said, recalling a lecture he once heard Simon give on cable television's "Inside the Actors Studio."

Simon insisted, said Kopell, "that the actors get the words precisely, because inherently the words are the music. Paraphrasing would really undermine all of this. Simon's not modest about that."

Just as important as these technical nuts and bolts, both Kopell and Kline agreed, is the fact that, to work, comedy must be played dead serious. Kopell quoted Simon's television lectures again, when the playwright said he never hires comics for his plays. "Never in my plays," Simon said, "because a comic will be looking for a laugh. We don't want that. We want real situations."

Kline explained: "Comedy is so fragile. It's more difficult than drama, and the trick for the director is to ground the characters in a reality, a real situation, so that when you get to the orchestration of it, the musicality of it, you're working from something that's been established between the characters and the situation. And there is a very definite, strong situation Simon has based this particular dance of comedy on."

A party at a well-to-do home, an attempted suicide, guests hiding evidence--yes, a strong Agatha Christie-like situation. But then there is Neil Simon's particular comic take on that reality.

Composers note their scores with tempo directions, like "allegro" and "andante," and Kline said comedy writing is no different.

"There are certain passages in this play where you can actually hear a metronome," he says. "It has to have a certain snap to it, otherwise the emphemeralness of it falls apart. It's like helium, and it disappears, and the audience is left looking at their watches."

* "Rumors," Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 18. $20. (213) 466-1767.

Neil Simon Was Never an Actor: A challenge of a different kind was presented to Group Repertory Theatre company members by artistic director Lonny Chapman. The trick was to write short plays about passion, romance, running away from oneself, finding oneself, all private moments in public places. Again, all real situations with a comic coating.

Out of almost 50 plays written, eight were chosen for GRT's "Private People in Public Places," opening this weekend for a four-week run.

The trend in Hollywood is for actors to write their own material, from screenplays to one-person shows. Think about it. Chazz Palmieri's solo turn, "A Bronx Tale," landed him a lucrative big-screen acting career.

* "Private People in Public Places," Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 20. $15. (818) 769-7529.

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