COLORFUL CAST Making lemonade from Simon’s lemon.
When Neil Simon penned Fools, writes director Celeste Green in the program notes to her Lyric Music Theater production of the 1981 comedy, he was playing to lose: He was hoping not to make us laugh and cry, but to hose his investors and flout his ex-wife, who was promised the profits of his next play.
If that's true, it explains a lot. Simon's slapstick script about a Ukrainian village cursed with stupidity, and a young schoolteacher's scheme to break the curse, is facile, careless, and without a lot in the way of soul. And so it's a testament to the talents of Green and her cast and crew that this show is as dynamic and colorful as it is. Lyric's community-theater production of Fools is energetically acted, with lovely costuming and a charming set.
The story: When optimistic young graduate Leon Tolchinsky (John Robinson) answers an ad for a schoolteacher out in the Russian sticks, he is astounded and appalled to find the town populated with folks who can't remember their names, how to use the door, or the distinction between "mama" and "papa." That last is a particular problem (along with sitting down and standing up) of young Sophia Zubritsky (Kristen Peters), daughter of the town doctor Nikolai Zubritsky (Rick Kusturin) and his wife Lenya (Cynthia O'Neil). Sophia, with whom Leon becomes promptly smitten despite her stupidity, is also a central player in the curse itself:
Two hundred years ago an ancestor of hers, also named Sophia, was forbidden by her father to marry her lover because he was illiterate. When the young man killed himself, his father levied the stupidity curse as his revenge. The only way for Leon to lift it is by either educating Sophia within 24 hours of his arrival (or risk becoming stupid himself), or marrying her off to one of the illiterate's line, in this case Count Gregor (the fabulously nefarious Adam Normand), who proposes twice a day like clockwork.
So Leon has his work — and his trials of patience — cut out for him. Much of the resulting comedy consists of stupidity gags and poor Leon's exasperating conversations with the townsfolk, such as shepherd Something Something Snetsky (Andrew Goodwin), the woeful self-described "sheep loser," and Yenchna (Crystal Giordano), who sells daisies as whitefish. And to the great credit of Green and her cast, Simon's rather tedious convolutions come off snappily paced and with non-stop kinetic adventures: With barely space for breath, books are hefted, dust blown in faces, laps mounted, and décolletage ogled, all before some new action spurs another round of reactions. Townsfolk do their zipping about on Vince Knue's colorful village set, the walls of which open and close cleverly to change scenes.
As Leon, the very animated Robinson keeps things moving nicely, and as his beloved, Peters manages to render Sophia astoundingly moronic without sacrificing her inherent warmth and goodness. Kusturin, playing Sophia's father, has a particularly sympathetic deadpan in his handling of all the dumb-talk, and as the frustrated villain Count Gregor, Normand pulls off some super moves with his cape and his cartoonish eyeballs.