Neil Simon's comic fable Fools is getting a talented and chuckle-packed production by Ocean State Theatre Company (through February 10), which might have mildly annoyed the playwright if he knew. You see, word has it that he penned the lighthearted trifle in the 1980s not wanting it to be one of his usual Broadway hits, since he'd agreed in a divorce settlement that his ex-wife would get half the profits of his next play.
Funny bit. Sounds like it would make a great Neil Simon play. Maybe when he finally cools off.
Directed by Amiee Turner, this is a finger exercise of a comedy, the theatrical equivalent of a string of Polish jokes. The time is 1890; the place, the Ukrainian village of Kulyenchikov. The premise of the tale is that every villager is cursed with stupidity, so their inability to spell Kulyenchikov is slyly indicated by scenic designer Kimberly V. Powers's cartoon-colorful houses bracketed by direction signs for Pole-and and Kee West and such.
Into this common-sense black hole steps schoolmaster Leon Tolchinsky (Matthew Rickard), bouncing with happiness over the prospect of teaching literature but quickly dismayed. The first person he meets is "Something Something" Snetsky (Mike Daniels), whose first name is too complicated for the villager to remember. He is known as the sheep loser, so a recurring sight gag has him searching for his woolly charges.
A love interest for Leon soon appears, in the form of Sophia Zubritsky (Alyssa Gorgone) The 19-year-old lovely is so stupid, we are told, that she only recently learned how to sit down. This wincingly lame gag is fortunately the worst of the lot, which keep coming at a finger-snapping clip. More typical is the following exchange:
"Do I have any mail?"
"No — I'm the postman, and I have all the mail."
Speaking of which, did you hear about the milkmaid who holds her cow upside down, hoping to get more cream? She marches by too. Yeah, yeah, junior high schoolish, but sometimes don't you just want to put your brains in a bucket and go with the flow? Then you can appreciate the fishmonger here who is selling flowers as fish because the fishermen had a bad day and "Why should I suffer?"
Words being taken literally is another source of amusement; imagine the possibilities around the reply "I can't say that I have."
Sophia's parents are not much brighter than she. There is Dr. Zubritsky (Alexander Cook), who doesn't accept payment for his services, telling a patient he can give him something if he ever goes to medical school. And there is his wife, Lenya (Stacey Geer) who occasionally provides background entertainment while others converse by grimacing with effort as she pushes a door that needs to be pulled open.
Leon learns that the curse is 200 years old, imposed by the prospective father-in-law of an historical Sophia Zubritsky because her suitor was illiterate. If Leon can successfully educate the current Sophia within 24 hours of arriving in the village, the curse will be lifted; if he can't he has to flee or become stupid himself.
There is a wonderful villain here, Count Gregor Yousekevitch, played by Bruce Warren with a delicious verve that competes nicely with Rickard's young-lover enthusiasm. He lives in the castle on an overlooking mountaintop, and the people believe that thunder signals his displeasure, to be followed by water that he hurls down upon them.