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Looking at the Stars

Fools and Touch Span the Ridiculous and the Sublime

Dumb is as dumb does in Neil Simon's Fools
Come on, come on, come on now . . .: Elisabeth Ogrin and Oscar Ceville come together in Touch

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 9/26/2001

Touch and Fools

Toni Press-Coffman and By Neil Simon

There is some touching in Touch, but there's a lot more talking. In fact, this somber drama by Toni Press-Coffman opens with a 30-minute monologue by its lead character in which he takes us from his childhood through a marriage that has a tragic outcome.

Even when other characters appear, they're also monologue-prone. Although actual face-to-face conversations eventually take place, a playwright's note states that "the play is set in [the lead character's] mind and the places he conjures there." The other characters are conjured up by this man's storytelling and speak only when he allows them to.

The torrent of words, inherently static staging, and relentlessly sad plot make for a challenging evening for both the actors and the audience. An award-winning play whose previous productions include the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Ky., Touch proves worth the effort in the current Fells Point Corner Theatre production.

With tweaking, this local staging could become truly touching. The actors suffer from hesitations beyond the scripted ones, and they're even stiffer than the stand-and-deliver construction of the play calls for. If director Alex Willis encourages her cast to loosen up a bit, the strong emotions in this material would come across more naturally; as is, these emotions often seem like they're recited rather than deeply felt.

This is certainly the case for the actor portraying the main character. Carlos del Valle deserves a medal for his feats of memorization as Kyle Kalke, a lonely astronomer who marries an outgoing woman (who is spoken about but never seen on stage). Kyle's lengthy speeches about their relationship contain beautiful if occasionally overstated metaphorical connections between heavenly and human bodies.

Del Valle navigates his way through those speeches but doesn't always invest them with enough feeling. Understandably anxious to remember all the words, he sometimes announces rather than embodies what they mean.

The three other characters appearing on stage are Kyle's lifelong and devoted friend Bennie Locasto (Oscar Ceville), who does his best to make Kyle less of a loner; Kyle's wife's sister, Serena (Elisabeth Ogrin), who is as serene as her name; and a prostitute named Kathleen (Melainie Eifert), who initially only cares about the male bodies willing to pay for the temporary use of her body.

These supporting characters get more time on stage in the second act, and Touch gains much-needed dramatic momentum. The play truly comes alive when the characters are allowed to talk and touch.

The only thing Press-Coffman's Touch has in common with Neil Simon's Fools is a single-word title. This minor 1981 play ranks among the least of Simon's accomplishments. It's simple Simon, really, with its deliberately dumb premise about a schoolteacher (Richard Dean Stover) who moves to a Ukrainian village in 1890 only to discover that its inhabitants are living under a 200-year-old curse that makes them incredibly stupid. Intended as a dumb-funny lark, the play instead more often seems just plain dumb.

In the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre production, directed by Bob Russell, the mostly graybearded 10-member cast delivers appropriately broad performances as a teacher, shepherd, butcher, postman, vendor, nobleman, and other village idiots. The best consumer advice: Lower your IQ, enjoy the stupid jokes as best you can, and trust that the village's curse, and the play itself, will eventually end.

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