Life brings us great gifts: A coveted job, a stable marriage, a newborn full of promise. It also presents us with great, sometimes seemingly unbearable, losses: a fire that destroys everything, a protracted illness, the loss of a spouse. But the real smack in the head is when life gives us great gifts and great losses in the same moment.
This is the charged setting for Neil Simon's Chapter Two, which opens ATC's 51st season. The 1977 comedy is one of the first of his plays that shows Simon possesses more in his writer's bag than just jokes. This piece reveals not only the comic brilliance of his one-liners and wit, but his willingness to look earnestly at the complexities of what it means to be human.
George Schneider (David Mason) is a youngish widower, having recently lost his wife of 12 years to illness. He has no idea how to deal with his profound grief. He's a writer and a bit of an introvert and has just returned from what was hoped to be a trip to help gain perspective and possible acceptance and healing. He chose to go to all the places he and wife had gone together. That's how clueless this guy is.
His brother Leo—and as Ben Huber plays him, the polar opposite of introversion—tries to encourage him to start keeping company with women also looking for companionship. George is not interested.
Jennie (Blair Baker), an actress, lives across town from George. Her divorce from her husband of six years has just been finalized, and her friend Faye (Diana Pappas) would love for her to audition some potential suitors for the next chapter of her life. Jennie is not interested.
In a case of mistaken phone numbers, George calls Jennie, and in what has to be one of the most cleverly written courtship scenes ever, the two are intrigued with each other. (Mason and Blair nail this scene perfectly.) The phone calls lead to a hasty courtship and an even hastier tying of the knot. But this haste is not without its consequences. Simon's story borrows from his own life, a time when he was reeling over his first wife's death. In that real-life scenario, his "chapter two" involved the actress Marsha Mason, and the play is a kind of tribute to her. At ATC, in a nifty but curious twist, Marsha Mason directs Simon's tribute. Mason played Jennie in the film made a few years after the 1977 play made its successful debut. She and Simon were married 10 years. Mason has had a successful career as an actress, onstage and in film and TV. She has stated that although the play's source material is her history, she approaches directing the play as she would any other. She directed a very smart Act of God last season at ATC.
Here she has overseen a very good rendering of Simon's play, which does have its challenges. But her capable cast and cadre of designers have conspired successfully to give us a good, if not great, production.
An example of the challenges mentioned above is the duo of Faye and Leo. They are necessary to move the story, but neither is a particularly interesting character, even though Huber and Pappas are fine enough. The seams of playwriting show here.
Mason's George is both lovable and maddening as he gracelessly wades his way through the swamp of grief. He has no idea how to cleanse, to heal—how to feel. He has been deposited in a strange land, finding his soulmate irretrievably gone and his own soul hollow. Yielding to the love he feels for Jennie scares and disables him.
Blair's Jennie is grounded, likable and infinitely patient with George's roiling pain and the guilt that he feels for sucking her into his torment. We believe both her unconditional love for George and her own suffering because of her passion.
Lauren Helpern's set gives us a look simultaneously at both locations of the action: George's nicely furnished home and the much more modest apartment of Jennie. (I found it slightly odd that George's square footage spilled across the downstage area, forcing upstage, or father away from the audience, all the action that takes place in Jennie's apartment.) Giving more definition to our sense of place is a shadowy background of the New York City skyline.
This is an interesting play given a good production. Yet, there was something intangible that was not quite right, that cast a shadow between me and a full embrace of the production. I really had to think long and hard about it, but I think I identified it.
The play was written in 1977 and it has a sensibility that reads 1970s. Other more recent revivals of the piece have produced it as a period piece—with 70s decor and costumes and other conventions of the time. However, Mason has chosen to place it in our decade of the 21st century, with cell phones and computers and such paraphernalia. But the play doesn't reflect the cultural trappings these phenomena have produced. It just doesn't translate well. It's as though these clothes don't quite fit that body. Certainly, there is a timelessness in the essence of the story. But the way the story is told, the conventions within which it is set, is unmistakably 1970s. It can't be totally successful and credible by plunking it down in a very different time. The wonderful telephone scene mentioned earlier would today be more likely played out as a mad series of texts. This production tries to color outside the lines that Simon drew in a very particular time and place. If anyone has the right to take such liberties, it would be Mason. But the result is that the whole thing feels slightly askew.
It doesn't spoil everything, however. We still get a heartfelt and expertly written story delivered by fine actors in a credible and touching way. And that's a beautiful thing.