FOOLS by Neil Simon, the final 65th season production now playing at The Village Players of Hatboro, features clever casting by directors Ron Green and Gina Lutz which improves on an otherwise silly script,. The leading players are no longer as contrived as the characters on the pages. The actors have shaped each role as believably funny and vacuous, utterly baffled by the curse that has befallen their village.
FOOLS may never have been a crowd pleaser. Many believe that Simon purposely dumbed down his Broadway production in the hopes of less-than-lucrative profits, after agreeing to pay his then-wife, Marsha Mason, from the proceeds of their divorce. This rumor was never substantiated, but made for interesting chatter in the dressing room. FOOLS opened in 1981 and closed after only 40 odd performances, yet, far from a failure, FOOLS plays on much to the chagrin of naysayers.
The curtain opens with Leon Tolchinsky (Anthony Cipollo), a teacher who lands a post in a serene Russian hamlet. When he reaches the 19th century enclave of Kulyenchikov he finds the villagers milking cows upside down in hopes of getting more milk, selling flowers as fish, and thinking that rain comes from buckets of water poured out by the Count who lives atop the mountain. The town has been cursed with Chronic Stupidity for 200 years and Leon’s job is to break the curse. The hook is that if he does not succeed within 24 hours, he too becomes Stupid. Many other teachers have come to break the curse and have failed.
To add to the chaos, Leon falls in love with Sophia Zubritsky (Jenny Sullens), a beautiful girl so Stupid that she only recently learned how to sit down. In Act I, Sophia repeatedly calls the departing Leon to run back to her and climb the jagged wall to her bedroom. Because of her feeblemindedness, as he complies, she runs outside to the lawn below, constantly missing the love-struck Tolchinsky and leaving him exceedingly short of breath. This exercise is repeated again and again in a short amount of stage time. The teacher is panting and Sofia, in her absurdity, does not understand the error of her ways. She does not learn from her mistakes. Lutz and Green design a clever wall for the leading man to scale like a mountain climber on a carnival game.
Cipollo injects manic energy throughout the show, and in Jeremy Piven-like fashion, is the essence of a comedic leading man, with his punctuated mannerisms. Cipollo takes us with him as his sanity is tested by a barrage of silly happenings. He almost breaks the fourth wall on several occasions, pleading for emotional support from the members of the audience, which is funny in and of itself, and his comedic timing spurs on the laugh track.
Sophia’s parents (Clint Cleaver and Joan Kerber) are confused dimwits, though they both seem to have a distinct sense of self even in their haphazard state of idiocy. An example of this is when they try to explain to the visiting teacher, Tolchinsky, that a “purse”, a “nurse” a “curse” has plagued the village. With almost the physicality of a vaudevillian, Clint Cleaver as Dr. Zubritsky asks his wife to lower her voice, and Joan Kerber immediately induces laughter from the crowd as she crouches at the knees and dramatically drops her voice – all with innocent, gullible doe eyes. Lots of funny, unforced bits from Cleaver and Kerber.
While Leon works frantically to “educate” Sophia, Count Gregor Yousekevitch (Rick DiDonato), (a synthesis of Lord Farquaad of Shrek meets Richard Lewis’s Prince John in Robin Hood: Men in Tights), DiDonato projects that dastardly bad guy persona. He’s not twisting a waxed moustache, but if he had one, that is exactly what he’d do.
Rounding out the cast of villagers is Something Something Snetsky (Joe Forsstrom), a shepherd, who forgets where he left his sheep, Yenchna (Jeanne Gheen),, a fish vendor who thinks white flowers are whitefish, Mishkin, a mail carrier who holds onto urgent mail (Becca Seeley), Slovitch (Tim Schumann), a butcher who sweeps dust back into his house, and the dry, singing Magistrate (Chris Hoagland).
FOOLS was adapted in 1990 as a musical by Ted Kopulos in San Jose, California with a new title and the addition of a new character. FOOLS may not be deemed Neil Simon’s best work, but the cast and crew of The Village Players of Hatboro, took the material and tricked us into laughing along with this light-hearted, once upon a time tale of love and worth.
by Neil Simon
Directed by Bob Green and Gina Lutz
Village Players of Hatboro
June 7 – 22, 2013
401 Jefferson Avenue
Hatboro, PA 19044