Absurdity in 'Fools' performance leaves audiences laughing

The love interest in The University of Alabama’s new play is too stupid to sit down. I’m not exaggerating – she spends 30 seconds trying to remember how to sit down in a chair. The hero falls for her while she’s struggling to say her own name. That was the point in “Fools” when I began to realize what playwright Neil Simon, who wrote “The Odd Couple,” had in for us.

If you’re looking for Simon’s quaintly human New Yorkers, you won’t find any in the Russian hamlet of Kulyenchikov, a town with an ancient curse of stupidity. And, like the townsfolk, the show will make you feel dumb. Not because you’re watching a stream of legitimately terrible jokes, but because you find yourself laughing at just about every one.

Spunky young bookworm Leon Tolchinsky (John Paul Snead) has come to be the new schoolmaster. Suitcase in hand and grinning like Socrates, he rattles off a few soliloquies about the joys of knowledge. And then meets a man who can’t count to 12 or remember his own name. Soon, Leon realizes it’s up to him to break the curse by educating the physician’s daughter Sophia (Natalie Riegel, with Esther Workman stepping in Friday and Sunday).

It’s a journey fraught with cheap clichés and third grade puns. Formally, the gags are Vaudevillian, but even the Marx Brothers knew how to count on their fingers. The humor leaps from The Beverly Hillbillies to a YouTube video of a 2-year-old. I could almost see Simon stopping to think, “Now how can I make this line stupid?”

New York, apparently, hated it – it closed after just five weeks on Broadway. But the UA troupe has always had a soft spot for misfit scripts, and it waves Simon’s inanity like a battle flag. Snead’s wide-eyed Leon could pass for one of the missionaries in “The Book of Mormon,” his evil, land baron rival (Samuel Hardy) looks like Count Chocula at a discothèque, and they all frolic around a set that could be from Sesame Street.

The show flaunts every cheap pun, tramples Simon’s feeble attempts at sentiment and dares the audience not to enjoy it. The air in the tiny Allen Bales Theatre gets so thick with silliness that you either laugh or suffocate.

Good thing, too, because despite a few awkward rashes of philosophy, there isn’t any wisdom in the foolishness. Snead’s Leon is great fun but is no more relatable than any of the idiots. Sophia challenges his presumptions about intellect, but she’s too infantile to make any headway before everything is solved by – surprise - the power of love.

“There is nothing like the logic of an illogical mind!” Leon says, before Sophia forgets one-plus-one.

I read later that “Fools” is so bewildering to fans of Neil Simon that some swear he wrote it to be a flop, “Producers” style. And even at the theatre I could tell that the University’s production is a lot more fun than the play deserved to be. But the UA troupe does it exactly right: It doesn’t try to break the Curse of Kulyenchokov, it just puts it on the audience.

 

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