Literary Criticism and Significance
In his second autobiography, The Play Goes On, Neil Simon himself acknowledges some of the problems with the initial production of Fools. Simon wrote the play inspired by the short stories of Sholom Aleichem (whose work also provide the basis for the musical Fiddler on the Roof). Simon stated that the piece was highly influenced by vaudeville, and he envisioned it as almost a children’s fable. He thought it would be better suited to a smaller venue, but his reputation led the play to be staged on Broadway, where it had a relatively short run.
Frank Rich’s review of the premiere production found many faults with Simon’s old-world concoction. Despite being directed by longtime collaborator Mike Nichols and featuring a talented ensemble, Fools left Rich wanting. As he points out, the vaudeville influence gives the play a dated feeling, with jokes that feel overly familiar. He also notes the difficulty of differentiating the characters when the all have to have the same intellectual level. Rich believes that the idea would have been more successful in a shorter format (an idea echoed in reviews of subsequent revivals).
The play arrived at an important turning point for Simon. He had enjoyed an unprecedented level of success in the 1960s and 1970s; at one point he had four plays running on Broadway simultaneously. Fools arrived during a creative and commercial lull, before the Brighton Beach trilogy of the mid-1980s restored his status. Both Rich’s review and Simon’s description hint at something deeper about Fools: the play was something of an experiment for Simon. Having written plenty of comedies, dramas, and musicals about contemporary New Yorkers, Simon chose to return to his roots. Before making his name as a playwright, Simon wrote for television variety shows—programs directly descended from the vaudeville tradition. With Fools, Simon seemed to be asking if his audience could appreciate the type of humor he inherited as an up-and-coming writer.
Despite negative responses, Fools has enjoyed a healthy popularity in regional, community, and high school productions. Simon seemed to know the play was better suited for these venues, and he dared to write a play that was not specifically engineered to be a Broadway blockbuster. As the stakes of Broadway have grown higher and plays have been increasingly dwarfed by musicals, Simon’s intentions now seem ahead of his time. He recognized that a play’s short life could give way to more significant success outside New York.