Suspending disbelief takes on new meaning when entering a village of idiots anywhere on the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab campus in Laurel. But the APL Drama Club steps up to the concept and then some in its presentation of Neil Simon's little-known comedy, "Fools."
Rumor has it that Simon wrote the play to vex his ex-wife, alleging that he promised her the profits of his next Broadway play as part of a divorce settlement.
But whether or not Simon intended the show to be taken seriously, it is a fact that "Fools" debuted on Broadway in the spring of 1981 and closed after only 40 performances.
Directed here by Lynn Reggia, the script — a fable driven by nonstop silliness — nonetheless adapts well to a drama club bent on sharing an evening of laughs and entertainment with their coworkers, families and friends.
Before the play opens, the club loosens up audience members of all ages with interactive improvisation, puppetry and an APL Drama Club film, produced by Scott Lichtor, Zaza Soriano and Rebecca Koslover, as part of a clever preshow.
Then, as they enter the auditorium for the main performance, Anne Marcotte's whimsical set design transports viewers into the illusion of a fairy tale; a charming scenic illustration projected on the upstage wall frames the impression of a page in a child's storybook.
On opening night, APL Director Ralph Semmel made a special guest appearance, stepping on stage moments before the show opened to join briefly in the fun.
The tale of "Fools" begins as a schoolteacher, Leon Tolchinsky, arrives in the village of Kulyenchikov to tutor Dr. Zubritsky's daughter, the lovely Sophia.
As he makes his way to Zubritsky's home, Leon encounters some equally dim-witted villagers: a shepherd, postman, butcher and the town peddler. It takes mere moments for Leon (and the audience) to realize that all the locals are addled.
Before the end of Act 1, Leon finds out why.
Two hundred years past, an ancestor of Gregor Yousekevitch had cast a curse of idiocy on the entire village. A prior Sophia Zubritsky — forced by her father to marry someone other than the ancestor's son because he was illiterate — broke the young man's heart.
The young Yousekevitch committed suicide and, in retaliation, his father unleashed his fury and grief on the entire village.
This "stupid" curse can only be broken if the present-day Sophia can be educated, or if she marries a present-day Yousekevitch. But if Leon remains in the village without one of these things happening within 24 hours, he will become an idiot as well.
The fact that the whammy "almost" makes sense lands in perfect harmony with the continuous non-sequiturs in the dialogue. And of course, Leon falls for Sophia.
As the love-struck Leon, Adam Fosbury delivers an analytical interpretation of the smitten young optimist mesmerized by Sophia's beauty. His moments of passion may be rare (and never unbridled), but are worth watching for as he juggles a multitude of lines.
Playing Snetsky (the shepherd), club president Dave Zotian appears delightfully doltish, introducing the first "fool" with an endearing stage presence.
And the village fools that follow — John O'Brien as the magistrate, Nate Parsons as Slovitch (the butcher) and Daniel Brandt as Mishkin (the postman) — obviously relish being befuddled as much as the audience seems to relish watching them.
Sisters Anne Marcotte as the Yenchna (the town peddler) and Katie Marcotte (who switches roles with Rebecca Koslover on Saturday) as Sophia, exude passion and energy. And Raj Ashar and Shannon Willing (Dr. and Lenya Zubritsky) project a sense of underlying intimacy that lends sweetness to the confusion.
Villagers/mimes Dave Edell and Alan Landay fit beautifully into the visuals, as does Koslover wearing the best costume as Cow.
As Gregor Yousekevitch, Jeff Dunne steals every scene he steps into (including the pre- and after-shows) with an awesome Russian accent.
The Kossiakoff Center stage dimensions pose tech challenges in staging a theatrical production, and there are some unavoidable sight line and timing problems; but the adorable set design, fetching costumes and Reggia's savvy direction easily overshadow such details.
Simon's inevitable punch lines could easily become tiresome, but the absolute joy and energy exuded by the Drama Club performers capture every laugh.
"Fools" continues at the Kossiakoff Center on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, 11100 Johns Hopkins Road, Saturday, April 18 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, April 19 at 2 p.m. Preshow starts an hour before the performances. Admission is free. For more information, go to jhuapl.edu/drama.