In Neil Simon’s “Fools,”a centuries-old curse turns everyone stupid in the small Ukrainian village of Kulyenchikov. Not just mildly ignorant, such as someone who sits all day watching reruns of “Arrested Development” on Netflix and can’t name the three branches of the U.S. government. We’re talking more in the realm of seriously mentally impaired, as in not knowing how to open a front door when someone knocks, or thinking the water that falls periodically from the sky (i.e., rain) is thrown upon them in buckets by the dastardly nobleman who lives up the hill.
For the first few scenes, maybe even half an hour, Simon blankets us with enough crisp one-liners to keep things amusing. But then the extended joke starts to feel as if it’s been left out on the counter too long, and a faint odor of decay starts to waft through the theater. The comic framework of the play starts feeling more and more rickety.
The saving grace of the new Good Company Players production of “Fools” at the 2nd Space Theatre is brisk direction (this summer smoothie glides by quickly) and a cast that wrings every last bit of humor out of a flawed script.
Take Henry Montelongo, whose turn as the befuddled village doctor is a sparkling exercise in comic timing. (Dr. Zubritsky doesn’t charge for office visits because he didn’t go to medical school.) And Suzanne Grazyna, playing the street vendor, with her blacked-out teeth and insistence that the flowers she’s selling are actually the fish of the day, consistently made me crack a smile. I was impressed with Jared Serpa’s blustery butcher, perhaps the dimmest of the bunch, who carefully sweeps the dirt out the door of his shop only to brush it back in again.
“Fools,” through Aug. 22. 2nd Space Theatre, 928 E. Olive Ave. $20, $17 students and seniors
Director Karan Johnson draws out these amusing, bumbling characters without letting anyone becoming too broad or zany. Marie Q. Kramer’s costumes have a silly provincial ambiance (I love the fringe of tassels on the doctor’s vest), and David Pierce’s clever set design, including a street facade that opens into an interior, gives a sense of depth and height to the 2nd Space stage.
Alex Vaux, a GCP veteran, is an adequate Leon, an idealistic schoolteacher who arrives in the village; it’s not one of his strongest performances on the 2nd Space stage. Chase Stubblefield likewise gets in some decent laughs as the town’s highest-born citizen. (His Gregor doesn’t escape the stupid part of the curse but at least gets to be rich.) For both men, however, there just isn’t that much there in terms of character to resonate.
My favorite in the cast is Bailey Johnson as Sophia, the doctor’s daughter, dumb as a Ukrainian rabbit. Leon’s task is to teach her, but he falls in love with her instead. Johnson brings a sweet, flighty innocence to the role. I found myself buying not only her lack of book learning but a gradually revealed sense of emotional intelligence. Perhaps she isn’t as stupid as we think.
Still, my efforts to find anything beyond surface-level silliness in terms of the Sophia character might be a sign of desperation on my part to give Simon a benefit of the doubt for writing such a clunker. If you’re charitable about the whole thing, you can consider the experience a chance to snack on some empty comic calories.
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