Neil Simon’s “Fools” is one of his few plays that closed before it got to Broadway. That doesn’t mean the playwright isn’t profiting from the play in its frequent revival in small theaters. The audience enjoyment of this atypical Simon effort now at Garden Grove Community Theatre shows why.
“Fools” is an adaptation of an old Russian-Jewish morality folk tale about the village of Kulyenchikov, under a 200-year-old curse that makes all of the inhabitants stupid. Its moral, spoken in the dialogue, is double: “You can’t be cursed unless you permit yourself to be” and “Power is a useless weapon against the enlightened.”
The master of the contemporary one-liner went far afield of his comfortable milieu with this one. That’s part of the play’s problem. The other is that there is only one one-liner in the whole show. “What is the meaning of man’s existence?” “Twelve.” Variations of that one-liner fill out the remaining two hours.
How do you save a play that indicates Simon himself spent too much time in Kulyenchikov? Director Carolee Jortner takes a giant step to solving the problem by keeping her actors moving at a very sprightly pace. She knows not to let them dwell on spoonerisms and not to wait for their laughs, thereby getting more laughs than the writing deserves.
Jortner also found a key secret to making “Fools” work. It’s almost a one-man show, carried for the most part by the character of Leon Tolchinsky, an inexperienced young schoolmaster who has been hired to try to break the curse.
The director cleverly cast the engaging Daniel Schneider in the role. His John Denver-cute personality and his ability to underplay a punch line keep many of the play’s moments from seeming like hours.
Jortner also restrains most of her company from trying to look funny, a common error in this sort of comedy. Mitchell Nunn, as the village doctor who hired Leon to teach his daughter, plays it straight from character and is very funny. As his wife, Lani Hall rarely slips into physical shtick, and when she does it’s not enough to detract from a good performance.
Leon’s love interest, Sophia Zubritsky, is played by Temre Sue Sawyer in a performance that matches Schneider’s character-driven honesty. She is a delight, and their simple romantic moments together are the evening’s highlights.
The supporting cast of imbecilic villagers is pretty uneven--too often depending on the physical but often funny--but Lee Parry as a magistrate barely does more than read his lines clearly, and Rick Paap as the village’s evil land-owner walks leisurely through his role as though he were doing a celebrity cameo.
* “Fools,” Garden Grove Community Theatre, 12001 St. Mark St., Garden Grove. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., matinee Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 2. $8. (714) 897-5122. Running time: 2 hours.
Daniel Schneider: Leon Tolchinsky
Temre Sue Sawyer: Sophia Zubritsky
Mitchell Nunn: Dr. Zubritsky
Lani Hall: Lenya Zubritsky
A Garden Grove Community Theatre production of Neil Simon’s comedy. Directed by Carolee Jortner. Lighting: Lee Schulman. Setting: Carolee Jortner, Bob Harmon. Costumes: Larry Watts. Sound: Billy Atinsky.