BWW Reviews: Fun With Neil Simon's FOOLS at Cavod
In the world of all-too-well-kept secrets, there's Cavod Theatre in New Holland. Cavod Academy of the Arts isn't entirely unknown, nor are its children's productions, but that there's a full community theatre connected to the Academy, with adult performers doing shows more advanced than A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD, is still a surprise to many in Lancaster County and the surrounding area. Under executive director Connie Dienner and artistic director Reji Woods, a veteran of the local theatre and cabaret scene, Cavod Theatre has begun reaching out more broadly and making itself noticed.
Currently on stage at Cavod, on Main Street in New Holland (New Holland Pike, if you come in on Route 30) is Neil Simon's FOOLS. Set in a small Ukrainian/Russian village of Christians, if the play looks familiar to Jewish audience members, it's because Neil Simon also knew the Eastern European folk tales associated with the Jewish village of Chelm, in which all the villagers are born fools. (It's said of Chelm that the villagers determined that the moon was more important than the sun, because you need the moon to see at night when there's no sunlight.) The story of the play's development is also a familiar tale, a real-life version of Mel Brooks' THE PRODUCERS: Simon's divorce was conditioned on his turning over to his ex-wife, actress Marsha Mason, the profits of his next show, so he aimed to write a loser.
For a loser play that in fact didn't make it on Broadway, FOOLS isn't a bad deal; it's an Off-Broadway-feeling number that could have been successful there, or, if kept to its roots, on the Jewish theatre circuit. But Simon created a Christianized Chelm, and perhaps the collection of village schmendricks needs to be Jewish for Broadway, vide SPAMALOT ("You can't succeed on Broadway if you don't have any Jews"). It's a heavily slapstick show, perhaps seemingly more Mel Brooks in nature than Simon; the fact that it feels attributable to another writer and not Simon may have been what did it in on stage in the 80s, as well.
Director Reji Woods and a capable cast keep the laughs coming, particularly lead actor Michael DePuppo as new village schoolteacher Leon Tolchinsky, who fancies himself, as a new transplant, the one sane man in a town full of village idiots - after all, when lunacy is the norm, the sane guy is the one who's bound to stick out as the oddball. His attempts to bring common sense and knowledge in his first day in the village are possibly the most wasted efforts in world history. After all, he may not be a village idiot but he's still a little meshugge himself. Sophia Zubritsky, played by Olivia Brown, is the lovely daughter of Doctor Zubritsky, a beautiful girl so decidedly stupid that she's only recently managed to learn how to sit. DePuppo and Brown make a lovely couple on stage, with some real chemistry that makes their slightly absurd romance nearly believable.
Doctor Zubritsky (Collin Bollinger in a vaudeville comedy turn) and the singularly dimwitted magistrate (hilariously played by Richard Weaver) have a scene that may - as above - feel familiar, as the doctor and the magistrate enact a medical examination that's almost a dead ringer for the "doctor and tax collector" sketch in Simon's THE SUNSHINE BOYS of a decade earlier. But when Neil Simon steals from himself, at least he can claim he's stealing from the best, nu? The scene makes abundantly clear that this comedy isn't a farce, isn't a lot of things - but it is some classic vaudeville routines run together with a story line straight out of Chelm. The boo-hiss villain, Count Gregor, played by Jonah M. Martin, is a vaudeville villain, lacking only the curling moustache to establish his villainy - which primarily consists of annoying the whole town with his public marriage proposals to Sophia twice every day, and the villagers' belief that rain is caused when the Count gets mad at them and hurls buckets of water down the mountain at them. Hey, this town's collective IQ is bupkis, so don't expect a lot from their scientific analysis.
But for all of this, some of the best fun is found in the women of the show, Mrs. Zubritsky (Amanda Martin), a woman of alarming piety, and Yenchna (Madison Dopp), who might be a flower seller... or a fishmonger; it's not quite clear, but the village is fine that her haddock looks a bit like hyacinths.
Can Leon save the village from its curse of hereditary stupidity by defeating Count Gregor - who isn't any smarter than the villagers, it seems - and win Sophia's hand (and the rest of her, in case she isn't sure how to be divided up)? Will he become the new village idiot? It's none too clear.
Director Woods has added a few additional sight gags to the show that are nicely thought out, including some shenanigans involving the village library, which isn't exactly a place where people are learning. To detail the joke running throughout the production would spoil it, other than to say that the village's more literate citizens get a bit carried away with what they read.
For those who feel as if they've seen all that Simon has to offer - too many productions of BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS or THE SUNSHINE BOYS, perhaps - FOOLS is something that may not have been on the radar. Fans of Mel Brooks and of Monty Python middle ages sketches may also enjoy the play immensely. If you've read the Chelm tales (or in this writer's case, played Simcha, the village scribe of Chelm, in the third grade Hebrew school play), it behooves you to see more of what goes on in the village of fools, even this transplanted one without a rabbi (but with a mad monk of sorts).
And while you're checking out the show, check out Cavod's schedule, and their amazingly inexpensive theatre snack menu that includes popcorn and some particularly delicious soft pretzels. The theatre deserves a bit more recognition separate from the school and is doing some excellent work.
Through April 9. For tickets and information, visit CavodAcademy.com.