Somewhere between writing “I Ought to be in Pictures, ” another of his Broadway hits turned Hollywood movie, and “Brighton Beach Memoirs, ” the play that would usher in his Eugene O’Neill “autobiographical phase” (which would culminate with his Pulitzer for drama for “Lost in Yonkers”), playwright Neil Simon got a divorce and audiences got a mediocre play. After all, artistically speaking, 1981’s “Fools” was a throwaway, and allegedly hastily produced during a tumultuous time in the playwright’s personal life. It shows. Given the sampling of one-liners, wisecracks and comedic gaffes, the writing here is substandard Simon, at best, and never amounts to anything approaching the comedic charm or amiable innocuousness of “Barefoot in the Park” or even the female “Odd Couple” (and that’s saying a lot). “Fools’” story is simple, like the characters that populate its setting—a village cursed with stupidity—and concerns one man’s belief that knowledge is everyone’s birthright (“No villager left behind” could be his slogan) as well as the shenanigans that ensue when his teachings are met with incomprehension and resistance. The mismatched coupling, of course, is a time-tested Simon specialty—in “Fools” it is just writ large—but as such requires both a delicate playing style and comedic timing carefully attuned to Simon’s relentless jokes-on-the-heels-of-jokes rhythms. Romantic leads Dan Wachter as the tutor and Sarah Loveland as the object of his scholarly and sensual affections stand out precisely because they seem to best understand this, both of these attractive actors laudably refusing to push too hard or “act” the stupidity already inherent in Simon’s puerile jokes, and therefore turning out some very funny line readings and moments. Director Renae Stone would be wise to reign in the rest of her cast. She does, however, deserve credit for a delicious sampling of classical and contemporary musical fragments—from Orff’s “Carmina Burana” to Francis Lai’s “Love Story Theme”—with which she smartly parodies the play’s inherent melodrama and mawkishness. If only that was enough. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
At St. Bonaventure Church, 1625 W. Diversey, (773)404-7922. This production is now closed.