DOES ANY HARVARD STUDENT wish with exams fast approaching for fee a comedy thought a town whose inhabitant are idiots? One wonders and yet that is what director Paul Warner is Courtney offering in The Curse of Kulyenchikov a musical showing at Leverett House old Library though May 5. Perhaps the idea is to reassure Harvard students that all is not lost while towns like Kulyenchikov exist: but Neil Simon's shame less half-baked assault on inferior intellects should make most audiences uneasy.
If the premise of the play does not frighten you off, perhaps the dramatic treatment will. The Curse of Kulyenchikov provides theater but no drama. All the tools are the music singing sels interesting costumes lights actors and a supporting crew. But there is little to catch the audience's emotion or to engage their sympathies. The occasional bits of humor surprising enough to make one laugh out load seem oddly out of place. One looks for glimmer5s of human feeling but in vain.
Responsibility must ultimately lie on Simon's shoulders Kulyenchikov is a reworking of an earher Simon Play, Fools a failure when it first apperaed warned Peter Melnick and pat Pattison (Melnick is a student. Pattison a professor at Berklee College of Music) the creative team behind the revised version apparently thought that a musical treatment would improve Simon's initial effort. But their adaptation, while well-intentioned is not enough. Dressing a dog a Pavarotti will not prevent it form howling.
Simon was one of the godheads of the sugary ostensibly mellow culture of the seventies and this play shows how alarming it is that he is still at large. The premise behind the piece is that, two hundred years ago, the town of Kulyenchikov was laid under a curse by a disgruntled inhabitant. Two things can life the curse. Either an outsider must raise the intelligence of anyone in the town by even a tiny fraction or the descendants of two old families must marry resolving in matrimony the conflict which first produced the curse.
As the play opens a young teacher Leon Tolchinsky (Benajah Cobb), arrives in Kulyenchikov to assume his new post. He gradually learns of the curse and quickly falls in love with Sophia Zubritsky (Andrea Burke) Tolchinsky has twenty four hours in which a been be lifted only in Sophia marries the repellent Count Gregor Yousekevitch (Robert Kane). In cliched though sometimes amusing fashion Tolchinsky fails Disaster is averted however when after Sophia tells him that she no longer accepts the validity of the curse Tolchinsky claims to belong to the Yousekevitch family. The townspeople accept Leon's assertion, and after Leon's and Sophia's marriage they throw off the cause of unintelligee in a spasm of facile self-betterment. Yes, it's contrived and so, it doesn't make much sense.
THE CAST SHOULD NOT be faulted for the play's demerits. They have done their best, and it would be impossible for any cast to supply the animating integrity lacking in the play itself. But one wonders what eccentricity of taste or motive led the producers to choose the play in the first place. The play hardly bolsters the interests of art or humanity when it tells the audience (after inviting them to laugh pitilessly at other people's stupidity) that a change in their beliefs about themselves is sufficient to transform their lives. Most people improve their lives only through sustained work or love, and the promise of easy change from within is as misleadingly mean-spirited as it is ultimately depressing. It is perversity to tell people with problems--that is to say, all of us--that a change in attitude alone will end their woes. Moreover, a play which defines humanity in terms of intelligence is fundamentally skewed. In our culture, such a view implicitly raises the spectre of racism, which poisons any humor. These are serious problems with the play, with or without music, and I am surprised that actors or directors would find it attractive.
Amid the colorful stylization of character, several actors stand out Andrea Burke has a beautiful voice and some marvellous moments as Sophia Zubrisky, it is a pity that the script betrays her into mouthing platitudes as the play ends. Burke's contribution is especially refreshing next to the misguided efforts of Benajah Cobb, whose strained portrayal of Leon Tolchinsky cannot be grounded in an sense of the reality of Kulyenchikov.
David Flores and Erika Zabusky come off well as Doctor and Lenya Zubritsky, Sophia's parents. Indeed, Zabusky and Valerie Gilbert (Yencha the Vendor) stand out astonishingly for their stage presence and ineffable grace of motion. But the best efforts of acting, directing, and music adaptation cannot save this play from Neil Simon's dark and cynically elitist outlook.