Needs more foolishness

The laughs are thin in Neil Simon’s Fools

BRAWN VS. BRAINS<br>Jim Long plays Count Gregor Youskevitch (left), a sort of king dummy in of a town of dummies who doesn’t take kindly to the visiting schoolteacher (Henry Wilson) trying to plant seeds of knowledge in his dim-witted subjects.

Jim Long plays Count Gregor Youskevitch (left), a sort of king dummy in of a town of dummies who doesn’t take kindly to the visiting schoolteacher (Henry Wilson) trying to plant seeds of knowledge in his dim-witted subjects.

Photo By laura brown

You can’t really go wrong with a Neil Simon play, right? The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park, Biloxi Blues—Simon’s com-edies have very broad appeal. Even if you’ve seen them a dozen times, the characters are colorful enough and the jokes are sharp enough to withstand multiple viewings. And for the theater looking to stage a production that will put a wide cross-section of the community in its seats, having “by Neil Simon” on the poster is normally a good draw.

Fools, the current production at Paradise’s Theatre on the Ridge, sadly, is not one of those Neil Simon classics. Sandwiched between his mid-career successes They’re Playing Our Song and Brighton Beach Memoirs, Fools is mostly forgettable filler in Simon’s catalogue. The comedy has some of the snappy dialogue and one-liner markings of Simon’s better-known works, but none of the built-in, fully rendered characters and setting that the native son brought to his New York-centered classics.

And the result for TOTR’s stab at the limited work is a lighthearted comedy that, however well-intentioned and energetically presented, is too light and too disconnected to deliver punch lines that stick. And that’s not a good thing for a play that is basically a collection of punch lines strung together. Nearly every one of them elicited laughs or chuckles from the audience in the intimate, sold-out theater on the Thursday night I attended, but five minutes down the road on the way home, not one of the jokes had stuck in my head.

The somewhat inane story was stuck, however. But it was a pretty straightforward narrative: In the Ukrainian village of Kulyenchikov, everyone is a fool. It seems that some 200 years earlier, a spurned lover killed himself, and his father exacted vengeance on the woman, her family and the town by putting a curse of stupidity on the lot. Enter Leon Tolchinsky, one in a long line of visiting schoolteachers come to tutor the town doctor’s daughter, and, it turns out, fall in love and deliver the town from both the curse and the tyrant on the hill, the last surviving relative of the family who exacted the curse, Count Gregor Youskevitch (played to booming perfection by Jim Long).

Basically, the story winds up being an extended setup for the town’s fools to deliver the punch line that, yes, they are stupid.

And to their credit, director Richard Lauson and the cast—most notably Lorenzo Durham and Cheryl Habriel as Dr. and Mrs. Zubritsky—do a really good job of having fun with that setup. Both Durham and the infectiously expressive Habriel do the best work interacting with their stage mates and with their comic timing.

Tottering about like a sweet, absent-minded professor, Durham’s doctor hands out the kind of advice you might expect from a physician who’s never been to medical school. When the town’s Magistrate asks if he’s in good health, the doctor tells him, “The best of health. You’ll live to be 80.” The Magistrate angrily replies, “I’m 79 now,” and with a satisfied smile on his face the doctor says, “Well, you’ve got a wonderful year ahead of you.”

Sure, I rolled my eyes at many jokes, but just being on the colorfully painted scene with TOTR’s extravagantly costumed players and a full house of theater-goers and sharing in the engagement was fun.

And, of course, it’s not fair to pin the play’s inherent shortcomings on the theater. It is fair, though, to consider the director and cast’s efforts to overcome the light material and deliver satisfying entertainment, and for their effort, this production’s players and Lauson do a good job.

Henry Wilson as the schoolteacher Tolchinsky, for one, does a fantastic job of bringing much-needed energy to the proceedings. He wasn’t as sharp or reactive as a lead should ideally be, especially in a comedy, but he possessed an overall brainy presence and a soft touch during the intimate moments with the Zubrinsky’s dim, yet bright-faced daughter (Natalie Lukens) that made his character believable and likeable.

If you are still deciding whether to spend the 10 bucks on the experience, consider this: The audience on this night seemed to thoroughly enjoy the experience. A warm, cozy theater serving coffee, wine and cookies, filled with a community taking a break from life to laugh (or groan, as the case may be) together, isn’t a bad way to spend a fall evening.