Love’s more wonderful the second time around for widowed novelist George Schneider in Neil Simon’s Chapter Two, or at least it would be if memories of his beloved late wife Barbara didn’t get in the way of starting afresh with actress Jennie Malone.

Simon’s 1977 gem arrives at Laguna Playhouse as fresh and funny as ever, the absence of the Internet, cell phones, and social media making it a delightful period piece as do mentions of As The World Turns, Merv Griffin, and Fresca.

50f828a958dc7-chapter-two-theatre-review-a-theatrical-best-seller-at-laguna-beach-2 Under Andrew Barnicle’s assured direction, the Playhouse’s all-around terrific cast of four get every single laugh Simon wrote for their characters, though in the case of Chapter Two it would be wrong to write off this Best Play Tony nominee and LADCC Award winner for “distinguished playwriting” as just a bit of “Doc” Simon fluff a la Barefoot In The Park (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Admittedly the jokes in Chapter Two are the kind of one-liners for which Simon is justly famous. Take for instance when George gets yet another phone invitation from a widow or divorcee asking him out on a date, this one from the ex-wife of his chiropractor, and our hero complains to his brother Leo, “The guy leaves me with a bad back and his wife!” Or when Jennie informs her best friend Faye of her plans to spend “a couple days—maybe a couple of week” back home in Cleveland and Faye comes right back with “In Cleveland a couple of days are a couple of weeks.”

50f828a958dc7-chapter-two-theatre-review-a-theatrical-best-seller-at-laguna-beach-3 Still, with protagonists as smart and witty as George, Jennie, Leo, and Faye, it’s hardly surprising that they come up with one bon mot after another to make each other laugh—and us in the bargain, and Simon’s one-liners are never cheap or dumb.

What sets Chapter Two apart from most of the previous Simon oeuvre is its lead character’s all too real widower’s grief, a crippling emotion which the playwright knew only too well, having lost his first wife Joan to cancer only four years before.

Simon based Jennie on second wife Marsha Mason (who essentially played herself in the 1979 film adaptation and scored an Oscar nomination in the bargain), and if Simon’s marriage to Mason ended just two years after the movie came out, it will be crystal clear to anyone in the Laguna Playhouse audience that the playwright was as head-over-heels over Marsha as George is over Jennie, and most likely as torn by guilt over having “moved on” as George is about starting a new life with someone who isn’t Barbara.

One thing is certain. Neil Simon couldn’t have written four better roles, the proof being that Broadway’s Jennie and Leo scored Tony nominations, Ann Wedgeworth’s Faye won the Tony, and Mason’s Jennie scored the film star the third of her four Oscar nominations.

mgku2f-b781043663z.120130113102552000grf1c0p7e.1Those terrific roles now go to Geoffrey Lower (George), Caroline Kinsolving (Jennie), Kevin Ashworth (Leo) and Leslie Stevens (Faye), parts which these four fabulous L.A.-based actors play with wit, charm, depth, and pizzazz.

The dashing Lower and radiant Kinsolving ignite romantic sparks from George’s and Jennie’s first meeting, a boy-meets-girl chemistry made in romcom heaven, the duo scarcely recognizable from the roles in which this reviewer discovered each, Lower as “worst preacher ever” Gary in South Coast Rep’s The Happy Ones and Kinsolving as the veddy uppah clahss Amanda in ICT’s Private Lives. In sum, four fabulous performances from two fabulous actors.

50f828a958dc7-chapter-two-theatre-review-a-theatrical-best-seller-at-laguna-beach-4 Ashworth and Stevens match their costars every step of the way as Chapter Two’s “comic relief,” a pair of one-time lovers in not so successful marriages and eager to relight past fires. Ashworth manages to carry off both loving, supportive brother and serial philanderer, while Stevens, one of L.A. musical theater’s most talented dance stars continues to stake out a new career in straight plays, and quite splendidly so, her Faye a sassy Texas treat.

A talented design team makes sure the whole shebang looks and sounds great, from scenic/costume designer Bruce Goodrich’s snazzy double-duty set (Amanda’s apartment on the left, George’s digs on the right) and one great ‘70s outfit after another. Don Guy’s effective lighting design and Corinne Carrillo’s just-right sound design are winners as well. Kudos too to casting director Wally Ziegler and the Laguna Playhouse for not seeing the need to cast out of New York.

Jennifer Ellen Butler is stage manager and Deborah Chesterman assistant stage manager.

It’s easy to see why the Laguna Playhouse chose to open their 2013 season with the venerable Simon, who at age 85 isn’t all that much older than many Playhouse subscribers. At the same time, Chapter Two should prove every bit as delightful to audience members half Simon’s age and younger. The reason is simple. Great writing never goes out of style, and there’s no better master of the comedic than Neil Simon. In Chapter Two, he gives us all that he’s most famous for, and with a bit of something extra.

The Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

–Steven Stanley
January 23, 2013
Photos: Ed Krieger

Comments are closed.