Healing Hurts

LTW does a fine job of presenting the tale of Neil Simon's rocky second marriage

Neil Simon is a hugely popular playwright, but not a consistently good one. Although he's celebrated for his comedies, the plays that draw from the more serious episodes in his own life feature better-drawn characters and elicit a more sincere interest in what happens to them. Broadway Bound, now playing at the UA (see adjacent review), is a good example of this, and so is Chapter Two, at Live Theatre Workshop.

Chapter Two documents Simon's devastation upon the early death of his first wife, his unexpectedly fast courtship of actress Marsha Mason and the expectedly difficult first weeks of their marriage. This being a Neil Simon play, we expect the characters to overcome their problems and live happily ever after; little did Simon know when he wrote this in 1977 that he and Mason would be divorced within five years. If Simon had written Chapter Two after that failure--when he was well into Chapter Three of his life--this play would surely have been darker, or at least more wistful. What he gave us is pretty good, although it shifts awkwardly from Simon's usual clusters of throwaway laugh lines to quiet domestic drama, and doesn't really prepare the secondary characters for the transition.

Our stand-in for Simon is a novelist named George Schneider. He's neatly portrayed by Eric Anson, who deftly conveys the heaviness of George's grief as the play opens, loosens up playfully in the courtship phase and settles into bitter resentment toward the end. Anson is a sufficiently affable actor to make George seem truly vulnerable, not just a self-absorbed jerk; if Anson doesn't show us how George modulates from grief to delight to perturbation, that's the fault of Simon, who failed to write emotional transitions into his script.

The Marsha Mason figure here is a TV actress named Jennie Malone, a recent divorcee who's as reluctant to start dating again as George is, but, once past her initial resistance, falls hard for the guy. Carrie Hill plays Jennie as a no-nonsense figure; she's been hurt, but she's the one really sane and stable character in this play. Hill handles her comedic material without overplaying, always a danger with Simon's sharp wisecracks, but where she really stands out here is in the more serious scenes, where the emotional stakes are high. Hill's Jennie fights valiantly to remain even-keeled and supportive, even though she's on the edge of succumbing to frustration and despair.

Douglas Mitchell has directed the production with a determination to avoid boffo showbiz goofiness, and his low-key approach pays off, especially in an early exchange of phone calls between George and Jennie. The action plays out on a split set, each character's apartment occupying its own half of the stage. George initially calls Jennie by mistake, and then finds excuses to call again and again. It could seem awfully contrived, but the scene plays breezily here, and benefits from the easy banter between Anson and Hill, as well as Hill's care in shaping her character's very slow, reluctant surrender to George's charms.

Against their better judgment, romance blooms quickly--too quickly, really, for George is not yet over his dead wife. His devoted younger brother, Leo, tries to intervene; here's a character who lets Simon's seams show. Leo starts out as comic relief, spouting snappy, sarcastic one-liners, but eventually he delivers a serious monologue in which he tries to convince Jennie that George is still exceptionally fragile, and so jumping into marriage would be a huge mistake. Brian Wees handles this scene very well, and he has a fine rhythm in the earlier comic repartee. The problem here, again, is Simon, who hasn't adequately established Leo's depth of character, and who can't make Leo's argument fully articulate.

There's no such balance problem for the fourth character, Jennie's friend Faye. She's pure comic sidekick from beginning to end, and Kristi Loera plays her to good effect with her customary brassy cynicism. Unfortunately, Simon sticks Faye and Leo in a clumsy, unnecessary subplot that's more appropriate to a TV sketch than a play with seriocomic intentions.

So it's not a perfect script, but Chapter Two nevertheless ably makes its point: Healing comes hard, and quick laughs are only a distraction from the work to which damaged people must set themselves. It's not a message we often get from Neil Simon, so it's one worth heeding.

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