The story goes that Neil Simon, for once, was trying to write a play that wouldn’t be a long-running hit.
The divorce settlement with his ex specified that she would receive the proceeds of his next play – and he intended to see there wouldn’t be too many of those.
“The story is true,” said Ryan Mooney, who’s directing the White Rock Players Club’s upcoming production of the resulting play, Fools (April 10-27, Coast Capital Playhouse, 1532 Johnston Rd.).
“The question is how vindictive it was, or how much of it was a joke between himself and his ex-wife.”
Simon succeeded in his avowed aim to the extent that the debut production, in 1981, closed after only 40 performances – and the show is still classed as one of his lesser-known works.
But the fact that it has been frequently revived since – and generally been found hilarious by audiences across North America – indicates that Simon is too talented a writer to actually create a bad play.
Mooney – a fan of Simon’s witty, justly-celebrated dialogue ever since he played the Simon-surrogate in the playwright’s semi-autobiographical Broadway Bound at Metro Theatre years ago – agrees.
“Fools is certainly a different show for him – it’s almost pantomime-like in its humour,” said Mooney, who also directed the successful Lend Me A Tenor and Little Shop Of Horrors in White Rock last year (in between a busy slate of shows for his own Fighting Chance Productions in Vancouver).
Essentially a sitcom that plays like a riff on elements of Fiddler On The Roof – Fools has a similar setting, a village in pre-revolution Russia at the end of the 19th century.
Leon Tolchinski (Hunter Golden) has landed a job as a teacher in the idyllic hamlet.
But it isn’t too long before he encounters the village’s 200-year-long curse – all of the villagers are chronically dim-witted, including the girl he falls in love with, his student Sophia Zubritsky (Melissa Paras), daughter of inept physician Dr. Zubritsky (Ryan Johnston) and his wife Lenya (Sheila Greentree).
Complicating matters are the attentions of evil Count Gregor (Scott Milne), not to mention the local magistrate (Martin Perrin) and the denseness of villagers Snetsky, Slovitch, Mishkin and Yenchna (Ray Van Ieperen, Paul Ferancik, Clive Ramroop and Helen Volkow).
“The plot is pretty thin, basically a device to hang the jokes on, but it’s designed for people who want to enjoy a laugh and have a good time,” Mooney said.
“It’s a lot of fun – an opportunity to come and turn your brain off for a couple of hours.”
For Mooney, it’s a double pleasure – his first time directing a Simon show, and his first time to work with many actors whose work he’s enjoyed in other productions, as well as some newcomers refreshingly eager to work and learn in the theatre.
The bonus is an abundance of creative input – as a director, Mooney relishes collaboration with his actors, rather than giving line readings or set-in-stone blocking. Indeed, he said, the greatest challenge has been deciding what ideas have to be left out rather than what ideas can be put in.
“I’ve never worked with Sheila Greentree before, but she’s very funny, very quick and really listens. She was cast really because when she and Ryan read together, they were both so perfect and had such great chemistry together.
“Ryan is fresh from playing the lead in Fawlty Towers for the Vagabond Players. He brings so much to the table – his comedic instincts are fantastic and it makes him a delight to watch.”
Golden is a recent grad from Earl Marriott Secondary (2010), Mooney said, and his theatrical experience has mainly been in productions there.
“Hunter is like a sponge – he’s really keen and wants to take a role and do his best with it. At the auditions I had him reading for the villagers and all the other male roles and he did a great job on all of them.
“He’s a little young for Leon, but he brings something different to the role.
“One of my favourite things, when I audition, is that people can change my mind. It doesn’t happen that often, because you’ve usually done a lot of reading and thinking about the play and the characters and you know what you’re looking for. But when it happens, it’s great.”
“Melissa, who played the role of (principal girl) Isabella in the pantomime Pinocchio, recently graduated from Capilano College in musical theatre. I’ve known her for some time and its nice to have an opportunity to work together.
“She’s very similar to the part she played in the panto – a lovely, genuinely kind, nice person. And she’s very eager – ‘what do I do, give me direction’.”
Milne, who recently moved to the area from Terrace, is also another eager newcomer, with mainly high school theatre experience.
“He’s a very charming individual. For him, playing the jerk is a bit of stretch, but he’s making it work. He’s taken a different route with the Count – without giving anything away – which I think people will find very entertaining.”
Mooney said he’s particularly enjoying working for the first time with such well-known local scene-stealers as Van Ieperen, Ferancik, Ramroop and Volkow.
“All of the people in the show are characters themselves, both onstage and off,” he said.
“It’s nice to find a show that plays to a lot of their strengths.
“We have a great cast which is really important – they’re finding some elements of honesty in it, even though it’s not a show based on actors’ truths.
“I didn’t want it to be that everyone is just stupid. I think these are people who are what they are.
“It’s the old theatre school instruction – don’t judge your character. Each of them may think he or she is the most intelligent person in the village – although they probably think of each other as dumb.”
For tickets ($18, $16 seniors, students and Coast Capital Savings members) call 604-536-7535 or visit www.whiterockplayers.ca