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Fools premiered on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on April 6, 1981 and closed on May 9, 1981 after 40 performances. Directed by Mike Nichols, the cast included John Rubinstein, Harold Gould, Richard B. Shull, Florence Stanley, and Pamela Reed. The scenery was by John Lee Beatty, costumes by Patricia Zipprodt, lighting by Tharon Musser and music by John Rubinstein.
Fools allegedly was written as the result of an agreement Simon made with his wife during their divorce proceedings She was promised the profits of his next play, so he attempted to write something that never would last on Broadway.
With the permission of Simon, Fools was adapted into a 1990 musical with the title Kulyenchikov. It was produced in San Jose, California in November of that year. The revised libretto, and original music and lyrics were by San Francisco Bay Area playwright/composer Ted Kopulos. In addition to the score of 14 songs, an additional character was created - Alexei, Leon's con-artist uncle, who acted as an inadvertent love interest for Yenchna and demonstrated how even the smartest of con men can be beaten at their own game by the stupidest of villagers.
The story starts with Leon Tolchinsky, an ambitious young schoolteacher, arriving in the village of Kulyenchikev. Upon arrival, Leon encounters a rather 'unintelligent' shepherd by the name of "Something Something Snetsky, the sheep loser." After a confusing and tedious conversation with Snetsky, Leon goes off to find the home of his new employer, Doctor Zubritsky.
Leon meets with Doctor Zubritsky and his wife, Lenya, after struggling with the locals (Mishkin the postman, Slovitch the butcher, and Yenchna the vendor). He is introduced to the Zubritsky's daughter, Sophia, and is immediately lovestruck. Alas, she proves to be just as unintelligent as the rest of them, if not more so.
He discovers that the town's idiocy is no accident, that it is a 200-year curse of stupidity cast on them by Vladimir Yousekevitch after his son killed himself because the first Sophia Zubritsky (not the doctor's daughter, but rather an ancestor with the same name) was forbidden to see Vladimir's son by her father, who found out the boy was illiterate, and made to marry another man. If Leon can't educate her within 24 hours of his arrival in Kulyenchikov, he, too, will fall victim to the curse. And the curse can only be broken if he can educate Sophia . . . or if she marries a Yousekevitch.
As well as idiocy, the people of Kulyenchikov are also incapable of loving. Still, even without love, the last of the Yousekevitch line, Count Gregor, proposes to Sophia twice a day. With more motivation than ever, Leon strives to educate Sophia. Try as he might, 9am rolls around, as announced by the magistrate, and all seems to be lost.
But Leon, being the smart young man that he is, fools everyone into believing the curse has befallen him. Count Gregor adopts him as a son, and Leon and Sophia are set to be wed. At the last minute, Count Gregor admits that the adoption papers are actually divorce papers and the wedding is nearly called off until he 'kindly' offers to marry Sophia.
With yet another trick up his sleeve, Leon asks Mishkin the postman for his urgent letter and announces that his uncle has died and left all his debts to him. He says that that changing their surname couldn't help them escape the debt, and when asked what the surname was, he says "Yousekevitch." Leon and Sophia are wed, and the curse of Kulyenchikov is broken. (The letter really contained a bill from his college, saying that Leon needed to finish paying his debts.)
After the wedding, we see what has befallen all the characters. The Magistrate became a great judge, but fell into corruption and eventually was convicted for fraud. Mishkin wrote a six-hundred page novel on the Curse of Kulyenchikev, only to have it lost in the mail. Slovitch confirmed his greatest fears of being hopelessly stupid, when he bought four butcher shops in a town that only needed one and went bankrupt within a month. Snetsky found his sheep, and eventually in time became a great philanthropist. Yenchna went into real estate and now owns seventeen houses in Kulyenchikev, including Count Gregor's mansion. Lenya Zubritsky went into politics (becoming the first female mayor of Kulyenchikev) and now even her husband has to make appointments to see her. Doctor Zubritsky got accepted into a school of medicine and interior design became an esteemed doctor and now works for the Royal Family. Count Gregor renounced his bad ways and became the town monk. Occasionally he goes to the top of the hill to pray for God to throw water upon the village. Leon continues to teach, and Sophia happily bore their child and teaches Leon lessons of life.
In his review for The New York Times, Frank Rich wrote: "As one watches Mr. Simon, the director Mike Nichols and a topflight cast struggle to puff up this show, a feeling of unreality sets in. It's as if a team of brilliant high-priced surgeons has been assembled to operate on a splinter. While Mr. Simon has come up with a few funny moments, there are only so many jokes that anyone can make about stupidity. Once we learn that the town peddler sells flowers as whitefish, that the town doctor can't read his own eye chart and that the town shepherd can't find his sheep, there's an inevitability about every punch line."
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