Almost every successful playwright at one time tries to bring theatrical life to a fable.
Stephen Sondheim did it precariously in his bland "Anyone Can Whistle" and his partly successful "Sunday in the Park With George." Ibsen was more successful with his dark "Peer Gynt." Neil Simon did it simplistically in his slapstick "Fools," being revived at Orange Coast College's Drama Lab.
Simon has the comic tools: a penchant for one-liners and puns and insights into the foolishness of the human race.
"Fools," based on an old Russian tale, is the story of Leon Tolchinsky, a young schoolteacher in his first post, in the small village of Kulyenchikov. What he doesn't know is that, for 200 years, the village has been under a curse that everyone born there will be stupid. That's the meat for Simon's comedic grinder.
The villagers wallow in vaudeville shtick and malapropisms that make Leon's task pressing--he has 24 hours to teach someone something, or he will become as stupid as they are.
Without divulging Simon's twists and turns, rest assured that, as in all fables, everything works out, even Leon's courting of the opaque Sophia, daughter of the village doctor, Zubritsky, who specializes in burlesque-style medicine.
Comedy must be played with truthfulness and realism, and this outrageous brand of humor requires it even more. Director John Ferzacca knows this. His cast is mostly sincere and mostly very funny.
Some slightly sloppy slapstick action doesn't always come off, but the more important characterizations do. Things move fast enough that the viewer doesn't always notice Simon's slim, repetitive humor.
Sean Henry, a bright light in OCC's current crop of young actors, is a delight as Leon, with excellent timing and a look of candor that's perfect for the innocent teacher facing a Herculean task. Henry's panache and grinning honesty provide the hub around which this production thrives.
Melissa Carnett is a perfect match as Sophia, his blank-eyed love and first student. Carnett's puppy-dog giddiness and her ability to appear bright while speaking the most outlandish stupidities are charming and inventive.
As her dunderhead father and complacently blank mother, Robert Wilson and Janeen Gronsky are hilarious, so credibly dumb it seems they might be more right than us supposedly sane folks.
Lea Kassebaum--as a village woman who sells flowers as fish and milks her cow upside-down to get more cream--and Darren Crane--as the shepherd who can't find his sheep--are equally funny and believable.
Timothy C. Todd doesn't have the comic flair of the others as the cruel village overlord, but Gregory Ghica as Magistrate, Arthur Lightbody as a butcher and Marty Lewerth as a postman are close enough to the style to get a few laughs.
* "Fools," Drama Lab, Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $5-$9. Ends Sunday. (714) 432-5880. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
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Sean Henry: Leon Tolchinsky
Melissa Carnett: Sophia Zubritsky
Robert Wilson: Dr. Zubritsky
Janeen Gronsky: Lenya Zubritsky
Darren Crane: Snetsky
Timothy C. Todd: Gregor Yousekevitch
Lea Kassebaum: Yenchna
Gregory Ghica: Magistrate
Arthur Lightbody: Slovitch
Marty Lewerth: Mishkin
An Orange Coast College Department of Theatre Arts production of Neil Simon's comedy. Directed by John Ferzacca. Scenic design: David Scaglione. Lighting design: Leandro Mouzo. Costumes design: Cynthia Corley. Stage manager: Jennifer Merryman.