Widower meets divorcee and romantic sparks ignite if only the happy couple can prevent memories of his not-too-long-deceased wife from intruding on their happiness.

Ask any avid theatergoer (or Neil Simon aficionado in particular) to name the play and the answer is obvious. It’s Simon’s 1977 dramedic gem Chapter Two, the latest charmer from San Pedro’s Little Fish Theatre, as fresh and funny as ever, its Internet, cell phone, and social media-free New York City making it a delightful period piece as do mentions of As The World Turns, Merv Griffin, and Fresca.

2013-03-08-GeoJennieChap2LFT13ME436 Chapter Two gives us a Neil Simon at his laugh-getting best, jam-packed as it is with the kind of one-liners for which “Doc” 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 weeks” back home in Cleveland and Faye comes right back with “In Cleveland a couple of days are a couple of weeks.”

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 Little Fish 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.

2013-03-08-GeoLeoChap2LFT13ME108 Directing Chapter Two for Little Fish, Scenie-winner Patrick Vest proves himself every bit as talented on the other side of the fourth wall as he has so frequently been onstage. Not only has Vest picked four terrific actors and set just the right tone for maximum laughs and emotional impact, he has also made one of the most brilliant staging choices any Chapter Two production could wish for.

Instead of doing the obvious (i.e., dividing Little Fish’s newly widened stage into two distinct halves, one for George’s digs and the other for Jenny’s), Vest and scenic designer extraordinaire Christopher Beyries have superimposed the left half of one apartment atop the right half of the other, meaning that George and Jenny share one big center-stage sofa. Not only does this pay off in keeping much of the action front and center (thereby reducing audience neck-craning), it allows our two lead characters to be in separate apartments yet seated side-by-side, or one standing directly behind the other, a design/blocking choice that inspires arguably the most heart-stoppingly beautiful final fade-out in Chapter Two history.

As for Vest’s cast, the talented quartet could hardly be better. Richard Perloff captures all of George’s conflicting emotions, from grief to joy to anger to regret, delivers lines in an Alan Alda-esque rhythm that suits Neil Simon to perfection, and has great rapport with his romantic partner. As for the second Mrs. Schneider, not only is Trisha Miller a captivating Jennie whose appeal keeps growing the longer we get to know her, she is an actress who lives in the moment, who listens, and whose face reveals almost as much as her words. Put the two actors together and the repartee George and Jennie take such pride in is as sparklingly snappy as it gets.

As for the Chapter Two “comic relief” duo, they too are as splendid as can be. As younger brother Leo, Tony Ciccheti proves himself a comic master in the time-honored tradition of those great movie/TV sidekicks, and Dana Pollak’s Faye couldn’t be more captivating, a persona and performance that recall a young Goldie Hawn (or that movie star daughter of hers) in the best possible of ways.

I’m not quite sure why 1970 was picked as the year in which to set his Chapter Two rather than the late ‘70s when the play debuted, as its musical soundtrack rings no nostalgic 1970 bells for this reviewer (who has vivid memories of that era’s hit tunes), and one in fact—Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”—proves glaringly anachronistic, but this ends up the most minor of gripes.

2013-03-08-GeoLeoChap2LFT13ME487 In all other ways, Little Fish’s Chapter Two is a design winner. In addition to Beyries’ richly appointed, earth-toned set, Diana Mann’s costume choices look like they might have been bought and worn in 1970 or thereabouts, and Darrell Clark’s lighting design is an expert one as well, helping to cue us in to just whose apartment we’re watching.  (Having to imagine cords connecting phones to walls but not receivers to phones requires some getting used to, but again no biggie.)

Stephanie Coltrin is producer and Caroline Benzon stage managers.

Neil Simon’s Chapter Two is but the latest reason for Los Angeles theatergoers to head on down the 110 to San Pedro and check out this gem of a Little Fish in our very big L.A. theater pond. With seats only inches from the stage, Little Fish Theatre is able to give us Chapter Two up-close-and-personal, providing as thoroughly entertaining a couple of hours as any Neil Simon lover could wish for.

Little Fish Theatre, 777 Centre St. San Pedro.

–Steven Stanley
March 20, 2013
Photos: Mickey Elliot

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