Also see Sharon's recent review of Falling Upward!
Anyone who judges high school drama festivals long enough will become familiar with Neil Simon's Fools. Students are easily attracted to the story of a remote Ukrainian village populated entirely by idiots. They love the opportunity to walk around the set with blank looks on their faces, smacking into walls, and giggling stupidly at each others' antics like some sort of 19th century Beavis and Butthead. Their ten-minute "Group Humorous" productions are invariably never as funny as they hope.
For Neil Simon's fools aren't just bumbling morons, they're good-natured people who are aware of their limitations, but earnestly continue to fight the good fight of getting through the day despite the insurmountable burdens of language, basic mathematics, and doors you have to pull rather than push. The townspeople know that they shouldn't be this way, and that their idiocy is the result of a curse. They hire a schoolmaster to come to Kulyenchikov and lift the curse by educating the uneducable daughter of the family that originally received the brunt of the curse. The schoolmaster falls in love with the beautiful, but extremely clueless (even for Kulyenchikov) maiden, and discovers he has but one day to educate the lady and lift the curse, or he too will become subject to its mind-numbing effects.
Director Anthony Barnao keeps the production moving at a rapid clip, and is rewarded by a lot of laughs. Even though the audience catches on to the premise of a really stupid populace pretty quickly, we are still taken by surprise by many of the jokes and bits of physical business. We are so involved in the schoolmaster's sneaky attempts to weasel his way around the curse, when he says, "I was thinking," we don't expect the response, "What's it like?" By taking its folktale-like plot seriously, Barnao allows Fools' characters to come to full three-dimensional life, and the laughs follow.
Three of the fools are particularly good, and keep the smiles, if not actual belly-laughs, coming. Scott McClain plays the local shepherd, Snetsky, with an open friendliness that is not dimmed by his inability to fully introduce himself due to having forgotten his own name. Rich Embardo and Marsha Meyers, as the maiden's parents, are a delight. When Meyers' character can't remember a word, and tries to act out her meaning, her "it's on the tip of my tongue" frustration rings true to life, and is perfectly matched by her husband's gentle attempts to help her finish the thought. They are like any married couple trying to make up for each other's deficiencies, and though the degree of their need for assistance is greater than anything in the real world, their comfortable relationship is familiar to anyone with parents. Also notable is Jay Edward Anthony as the villain of the piece (there's got to be a villain), who makes the most of being evil, and deliciously turns on the audience when we support the schoolmaster against him.
The people of Kulyenchikov have no brains, but a lot of heart. This Fools works because while we're laughing at them, we're also rooting for them.
Blue Sphere Alliance, Anthony Barnao, Artistic Director, presents Fools, written by Neil Simon, directed by Anthony Barnao. Set Designer Ronnie Walsh; Lighting Designer Cris Capp; Stage Manager Tracy Goldstein. Produced by Devin Price.
Fools plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 7:00 (Sunday at 3:00 on December 23) at the Lex Theater in Hollywood through January 20th, 2002. Tickets are $15. For tickets, call (323) 957-5782.