8 p.m. today-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
through Feb. 14
Jewel Box Theatre
First Christian Church
3700 N. Walker
$10 adults, $15 students
“Fools” tells the story of an young schoolteacher hired to help lift a 200-year-old curse that has rendered all the residents of the small village of Kulyenchikov dumb. Upon arrival, he falls in love with Sophia, only to discover he has 24 hours to break the curse by getting her to learn, before he, too, succumbs to the IQ-draining curse.
Neil Simon’s play reportedly was written with the intention of failing, to spite an ex-wife who would profit from the play as part of their divorce settlement. Whether or not that account is true, “Fools” is regarded by many critics to be one of Simon’s lesser works; the production only ran for 40 performances on Broadway.
Perhaps easy to dismiss in context of Simon’s larger body of work, “Fools” is still a charming romantic comedy full of quick quips, goofy gags and imbecilic characters made lovable and endearing by a great cast and sure direction in Jewel Box’s production.
Returning to Jewel Box after a 13-year absence, director Richard Lemin led a production of “Fools” in 1990, with local actor John Ferguson in the role of the villainous Count Gregor Yousekevitch, a role that he returns to here. Best known as Oklahoma City’s TV horror host Count Gregore, Ferguson turns in an engaging and highly entertaining performance that brings something wonderfully bizarre into play: a kind of meta-humor that both Ferguson and the audience are in on “ totally unique to this staging.
The entire cast deserves high praise for elevating the material with individual characterizations and great comic timing, especially during the group routines. As idealistic schoolteacher Leon Tolchinsky, Dalton Thomas does a great job playing the straight man to the lunacy of the residents of Kulyenchikov. He delivers a solid, emotionally sincere performance, and is at his best when opposite Ferguson or leading lady Johanna Hoshall.
As Sophia, Hoshall is a joy to watch, playing a special kind of blissful ignorance that has a wisdom all its own. As Sophia’s father, Dr. Zubritsky, James Gordon also does standout work, finding a way to really own even the shtickiest and most absurd of lines.
He does some good tag-team work with Dana Palmer, who plays his wife. The cast is rounded out by fine supporting performances from Paul Smith as Snetsky, “the sheep loser”; Tom Stephenson as Slovitch the butcher; Scott Doyle as Mishkin the mailman; and Pam Fields as Yenchna, peddler of misnamed things.
Special praise goes to veteran comedian Charlie Dickerson as the magistrate. He does some great work in just a few scenes, often getting well-deserved laughs for his nuanced physical and facial performances alone.
Lemin and his cast and crew really have created something unique and wonderfully fun that can’t be seen on any other stage in the world, and metro audiences would be fools not to go see it. “Eric Webb