Review: Fools @ Theatre Knoxville Downtown

by JP Schuffman

"During their divorce proceedings it's decided that a well known playwright's ex-wife will receive all the earnings from his next production. So, out of spite, he sets out to write a flop." It sounds like the treatment for a lighthearted cookie cutter comedy, but its actually the factual genesis of Neil Simon's seldom produced Fools, now playing at Theatre Knoxville Downtown.

Fools is a comedic folk tale set in the fictional Russian village of Kulyenchikov. Recently arrived school teacher Leon Tolchinsky is excited to have been hired as the personal tutor of the lovely young Sophia, whom he instantly falls for. But, of course, there's a catch. The town has been cursed for 200 years with - there's no other way to put this - "dumbness".  Everyone in Kulyenchikov, including Sophia, is dumber than a door nail. What's more, the only way to lift the curse is for Sophia to become educated within 24 hours, otherwise Leon will fall victim to the curse himself.

I'm all for silly lighthearted romps on stage, and to be sure, the skilled cast of Fools does an admirable job of exploiting every possible comedic opportunity and keeping the pace lively through both acts. But, at a certain point you've heard all the one-liners about being stupid that you can handle in less than two hours. Once its been revealed (in the first twenty minutes) that the town's optometrist can't read his own charts and the fishmonger is mistakenly selling flowers, the steady stream of similar jokes start to loose their luster. Without the aid of any musical numbers or unexpected plot devises, the task of propping up Simon's floppy script falls on veteran director Windie Wilson and her cast of very capable comedians.

David Snow is charming and charismatic as leading man Leon Tolchinsky, delivering his asides with the natural poise of a vaudevillian. He plays across from Whitni Rae Resides as the pretty Sophia Zubritsky. And if its true that one needs to be smart in order to play stupid, Resides must be a modern Einstein. Sophia's parents, Dr. Zubritsky (Ed White) and Lenya Zubrisky (Kara Van Veghel) each find moments of laugh out loud comedy. And rounding out the principals, Bill Howard entertains as the play's antagonist Count Gregor Youseskevitch engaging in several Snidely Whiplash-esque episodes. The supporting cast commits completely to their dumber than dumb characters, and each of them spends at least a few minutes in the spotlight. Especially worthy of mention is Courtney Woolard as the Magistrate. A Knoxville theatre mainstay, Woolard's talents as a character actress are on full display during her brief moments on stage, and I was glad to see her on the bright side of the footlights for a change.

Director Wilson, makes all the right calls to get the most out of the script: keeping the energy up by insisting on tightly paced dialogue while still giving her cast the freedom to play and find the most vital moments of humor. Likewise her colorful and boisterous set design makes excellent use of the TKD space. Sarah Campbell also deserves credit for her appealing and effective costume design.

Fools left me with a strange sensation at the final curtain. I found myself applauding mostly for the actors rather than for the play itself. It was like I'd watched a group of highly skilled carpenters come together and throw all their combined craft into building a foot stool. Ultimately I left the night admiring the cast and wishing they'd had a better script to showcase their talents with... maybe one that wasn't written to flop. 

Fools runs through JUNE 18 at Theatre Knoxville Downtown.

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JP Schuffman is the Managing Artistic Director of the Knoxville Theatre Club, essayist, critic, and huge theatre nerd.