Fools, staged by Parlor Room Theater at Callan Theatre, is an entertaining romp through love and ignorance in a small Ukrainian village in the late 1800s. Though the play, written by Neil Simon and first produced on Broadway in 1981, is one of Simon’s lesser produced plays, many of its jokes land right on the mark. Director Frank DiSalvo Jr. leads a very talented group of actors through this lunacy.
The success of the play’s humor is not without irony; allegedly, Simon, in the midst of divorce proceedings, agreed to give his wife the profits of his next play and purposely set out to write a dud of a play. Though it may not have lasted long on Broadway, it continues to be staged to amused audiences across the country. Die-hard Simon fans may find that these characters are a bit less fleshed-out, less dramatic, than those in his finer work such as Come Blow Your Horn and The Odd Couple; the jokes a bit too easy and repetitive. However, a less-than-top-notch Simon comedy is still better than many other comedies out there, and the farcical confusion of plots and subplots may even please fans of Shakespearean comedies.
Set in the village of Kulyenchikov, the play follows a newcomer, Leon Tolchinsky (Dillon DiSalvo) a schoolmaster who has arrived to tutor the teenage Sophia Zubritsky (Sarah Pullen). In short order, Tolchinsky learns that the entire town has been cursed – with the curse of stupidity and ignorance. The curse, set in place two hundred years ago by the vindictive father of a star-crossed lover, can only be lifted in two ways: if Tolchinsky successfully rids Sophia of her ignorance or if Sophia marries the arrogant, domineering descendant of the man who cursed the town, Count Gregor Yousekevitch. Oh, and Tolchinsky has only 24 hours to do either of these things; otherwise, he will become stupid too. And (surprise!) Tolchinsky himself falls in love with Sophia – though she appears to fall in love with him too, we are told that with idiocy comes the inability to love. Hence, Tolchinsky will not only lose his mental faculty within 24 hours, but also his love for Sophia. (Cue the double entendre about fools in love; “no fool like a new fool.”)
Got that? Pepper this plot with Sophia’s mother Lenya (Kathryn Barrett-Gaines) and father Doctor (Phil Dickerson), along with dim-witted supporting characters, including a shepherd (Thomas DiSalvo), magistrate (Steve Rosenthal), postman (Sean James), butcher (Allison Frisch), and vendor (Jordan Wells), and there are many, many jokes to be made involving literal meanings of words (“I’m about to fall asleep and I want to get in bed in time”; “we know not what we do because we know not what we do”).
The set, designed to spare effect by Ember DiSalvo, as well as the props by Thomas DiSalvo, lead us to imagine, at turns, a small village square, the comfortable living room of a country doctor and his wife, and the balcony backdrop of our two lovers.
DiSalvo plays his Tolchinsky with an endearing earnestness that works well with the sweetness of Pullen’s Sophia, and Barrett-Gaines and Dickerson stand out as Sophia’s bumbling parents. The country peasant atmosphere is helped with the costume design by Ember DiSalvo and Thomas DiSalvo, dressing the characters simply but effectively – the butcher with a string of sausages, the shepherd with wool calf warmers, and so on.
The plot – silly as it seems – speaks to more fundamental questions, of which we get glimmers throughout. What is the purpose of man’s existence? This question is repeated several times; Sophia’s parents are impressed by the question, but beg not to be burdened by an answer or by, in the Doctor’s words, the burden of “making decisions.” “Aren’t questions beautiful enough,” Lenya asks. Yet, Sophia still dreams, she still hopes “to fly like a bird,” and desire to love, not only be loved, to be able to say, as Leon does, “I did not love you long but I loved you well.”
Lenya and the Doctor still pray to God, because “we’re not so simple that we don’t believe in you.” The Butcher, and others, wonder what might-have-been, what they might have accomplished if they weren’t cursed – which, we come to realize, is not so far from the wondering of any other person, in any other town, whether 1890 or 2015, in Ukraine or Washington DC. “What is the point of being educated if you just get angry,” asks Sophia of Leon.
Fools is thought-provoking, just a hair beneath the surface, and Parlor Room Theater’s staging is a pleasurable balance of humor and weight.
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour 50 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.