This review of BroadHollow Theatre Company's production of Neil Simon's Fools at Bayway Arts Center was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Written by Neil Simon
Directed by Scott Hofer
Costume Design by Joseph Kassner
BroadHollow Theatre Company
at Bayway Arts Center
265 East Main Street
East Islip, New York 11730
Fools, a comic fable by Neil Simon, premiered on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on April 6, 1981 and closed on May 9, 1981 after 40 performances. The story begins with Leon Steponovitch Tolchinsky, a confident young schoolmaster, arriving in the village of Kulyenchikov, Ukraine (Russian Territory), during the late 19th century. He responded to an ad in his school journal accepting a position as the personal tutor of Sophia Irena Elenya Zubritsky, the young daughter of Doctor Nikolai Zubritsky (who placed the ad) and his wife Lenya. Before finding the doctor's home, Leon runs into Yenchna (a vendor selling flowers as fish), Slovitch, the Butcher, who asks Mishkin, the Postman, if he has his mail (Mishkin responds, "No, I'm the Postman. I have all the mail), and Something Something Snetsky (who can't remember the rest of his name), who warns Leon "that thousands, even hundreds, of tutors have arrived previously in town only to leave within a day." Just before Leon arrives at the doctor's residence, we learn that the Zubrinsky's are just as dimwitted as everyone else in the town. Dr. Zubritsky, thinks his eye chart is a hearing test; Lenya, his wife, can never remember how to open the front door; and Sophia, their daughter, just learned how to sit and is taking singing lessons from a canary.
Leon is told the stupidity he has encountered is as a result of a 200-year old curse placed on all the residents and domestic animals of the town in 1691 by Vladimir Yousekevitch (whose spoken name causes people to tremble) after Casimir, his son, killed himself because the first Sophia Zubritsky (not the doctor's daughter, but rather an ancestor with the same name) was forbidden to see him by her father, who found out the boy was illiterate and made her marry another man. The curse will be broken if Leon is able to educate Sophia, or if she marries Count Gregor (Gregor Mikhailovitch Breznofsky Fyodor Yousekevitch), the last of the Yousekevitch line. Count Gregor warns Leon that he, too, will be struck dumb and be unable to love, if he fails to educate Sophia within 24 hours of his arrival in town. Leon doesn't believe in curses and tells the doctor he thinks the curse is just an old wives tale but the doctor responds by telling Leon he is confused and must be thinking of another curse in another town where "all the old wives had tails." Leon confesses he would be "halfway home by now" had he not fallen hopelessly in love with Sophia after first meeting her. As a result, he accepts the challenge of trying to educate her and to win her hand in marriage before she agrees to marry Count Gregor, who asks her every morning to be his wife. Her marriage to Count Gregor would end the curse but, unfortunately, he is not an ideal groom for a young, beautiful woman such as Sophia. He recognizes the other girls in the town are all uglier than he is.
I was extremely impressed with the quality of the writing in this Neil Simon play. It is fast-moving with many jokes embedded in the storyline. When you least expect it, you might hear that "the color yellow doesn't stick to your fingers as much as other colors" and that "the purpose of man's existence is 12." We are challenged to appreciate "beautiful questions" and "to not always demand answers." It is explained "a wish is something you hope for that doesn't come true" while "a miracle is a wish God makes." When praying, Dr. Zubritsky divides the town into the "Very Religious" and the "Somewhat Religious." Sophia, the simpleton, can also be very insightful. When Leon yells at her, she asks him whether that is a characteristic of being educated. He is forced to confess that it was "frustration and impatience that caused such crude behavior." While I won't tell you exactly how the story ends, I will say it involves adoption, divorce, further deception, and a wedding that never seems to end. In addition, while the townsfolk appear to be Christian, Dr. Zubritsky definitely speaks with a Mel Brooks inspired Jewish cadence; Count Gregor appears to be an ancestor of Paul Lynde; and Mishkin, the postmaster, vogues and, at any moment, appears ready to break open his closet door to become Kulyenchikov's first gay-rights activist.
Neil Simon uses the play to comment on the Age of Enlightenment and how women's education alters their role in domestic life and civil society. Count Gregor was taught to "make the villagers fear and tremble" at the mention of his name. They were serfs and he was rich. Now, with town members educated, they are less likely to believe in superstitions and curses or being told they were born "stupid" simply because another man once said that 200 years ago. When asked what he will do now, Count Gregor said he would "probably have to get a job" because "power is useless against the Enlightenment." Now having been educated, the wives of Kulyenchikov "have opinions" and "talk back to their husbands." They are even demanding the right to vote! Kulyenchikov will never be the same!
Scott Hofer deserves credit for his fine direction and I was particularly impressed with the costumes designed by Joseph Kassner. Joe Jankowski was perfectly pleasant and believable as Leon and his romantic affection for Sofia, expertly played by Kelly Anne Zimmardi, seemed genuine. I later learned from the program that this is the first show Joe and Kelly Anne are appearing in together since they got married in real life. However, if their baby in this show is going to look anything like the baby they may have in real life, I recommend they consider a more effective form of birth control (or else, keep the dog out of their bedroom when desiring privacy). The two runaway stars of the show were Gary Milenko, who played Count Gregor, and Frank Dispigno, who was Dr. Zubritsky. Milenko stole the show with his over-the-top portrayal of the insecure, swaggering Count and Dispigno was hilarious as the doctor who was trying to do what was best for his daughter. Every remaining member of this highly talented ensemble cast fully contributed to the success of this production. Kudos to Steven Weinblatt (Snetsky) (who has "two dozen sheep" - 14 in all); Kathleen Rose (Lenya Zubritsky) (who tells her daughter, "Go plant some vegetables; we'll have them for dinner tonight"); Constance I. Moore (Yenchna) (who is selling white flowers as whitefish for only 1.5 kopecks for a bouquet); Bob Coletti (Magistrate) (best line - when the doctor told him he was in fine health and would live to 80, he said, "I'm 79 already!"); Bruce Gotlieb (Mishkin) (the "gay" postman who would read other people's mail and give them to anyone he felt would enjoy reading them); and Mike Cesarano (Slovitch) (who I call the "sausage guy" because he went around town wearing sausages as a neckless - in the end, his biggest fear came true - he was really stupid, even without the curse).
I highly recommend you see Fools. Don't miss out on this opportunity to catch one of Neil Simon's better-written plays. Had this cast been featured in the original Broadway production, it would have run for years! Tickets cost $21.00 for adults and $19.00 for seniors for Saturday, June 11, 2016 at 8:00 p.m. and for Sunday, June 12, 2016 at 2:30 p.m. Call 631-581-2700 for reservations or visit BroadHollow Theatre Company's website at http://www.broadhollow.org/bayway-arts-center/bayway-main-stage/fools/