Chapter Two a Great Way to Enjoy an Evening of Timeless Neil Simon
Classic Neil Simon is how many have described the play Chapter Two, currently being produced by Schenectady Civic Players. Originally produced in 1977, Chapter Two is Simon’s semi autobiographical homage to his second wife, Marsha Mason. Chapter Two is not as much about the courtship of his second wife as it is the vehicle Simon uses to explore coming to grips with the death of his first wife. Many have seen this as the first time Simon uses his real life as something other than material for a string of comic gags. He begins to explore the world of dating again, falling in love, and the angst it causes him.
The play focuses on George Schneider, whose press agent brother Leo attempts, more often than not with no success, to fix him up with a myriad of dates to get George out of the house and out of his funk. Leo’s latest connection is soap opera actress Jennie Malone, recently out of what she saw as a loveless marriage of six years to a pro football player. Jennie’s bestie is soap opera actress Faye Medwick, who only can see the negative in her own marriage and is trying at some level to live vicariously through Jennie’s new life, which Jennie appears to be unwilling to want any part of.
The play is pure Simon. The repartee is witty, the banter is both funny yet real, the meter is natural and flows with ease. The odd part of the play is the two acts could almost be from two different shows. Oh, the characters remain the same and the premise consistent but the show goes from broad comedy in act one to taking a much darker turn in act two almost without warning. We see the real Simon emerge in Act Two as he has his characters, particularly George, come to grips with the gravity of the loss of his first wife and how Jennie is forced to deal with that loss as well. Fortunately, a deft capable director and strong cast are able to pull it off successfully.
Schenectady Civic is fortunate to have cultivated a cast that excels in comedic timing, knowing how to tread the narrow path between sounding buffonish and being heartfelt in their discourse. Christopher Urig returns to the Civic stage as George. At once the audience is able to feel his anguish over the insurmountable loss he has suffered. His angst and pain which he deals with through witty banter is perfectly executed. The audience knows this character within moments of his entrance on the stage. Ryan Palmer, no stranger to Capital Region stages, is Leo, George’s brother who feels his duty is to get him back out there again is perfectly cast. With a glance, a pause, a fidget, and a line delivery Palmer is the ideal comedian. He shows a broader range in this production than in many past performances, having the opportunity to stretch himself away from just comedy to the more, perhaps, complex, parts of the character’s dramatic moments. It is a pleasure to see Urig and Palmer reunited after their recent turn on the same stage in Dinner With Friends.
Christina Caruso James offers perhaps the most nuanced performance of the evening as Jennie. She moves her character from flip to disgust to curious to love flawlessly. James is an absolute delight on the stage. Mary Borden is Faye, the overzealous, well-meaning girlfriend appearing to live her own life through Jennie. Borden overplays her role. She continually plays her part at fever pitch, never allowing Faye to ebb and flow with Simon’s writing. Her best scene of the evening is when she appears on stage alone, posing in a negligee, getting ready for an illicit assignation in Jennie’s apartment. Her discomfort with what she is about to embark on was perfectly executed, funny and translated to the audience without ever uttering a word.
Director Barbara Davis takes the reigns on the main stage for the first time. Davis has a strong grip on the script, her actors, and their capabilities. She clearly knows how to work the script and get the very best out of her performers. Beth Ruman’s costume Design captures the 70s perfectly with, the program tells us, some assistance from the wardrobe of the late Marjorie Caruso. Peter Kantor’s set design is a very clever and well-executed split of the stage into two separate but co-joined apartments. David Caso’s lighting and Jackie Amilvia’s props and set dressing finish up a wonderful working and very livable-looking set piece.
Overall, Schenectady Civic Players’ production of Neil Simon’s Chapter Two is a smashing success. It is a wonderful way to usher in the holiday season. In our times, it gives us all an opportunity to look back on our lives/loves and look into and embrace the future. Perhaps most importantly, it gives us all the opportunity to laugh out loud for a few hours and get away from our own trials and tribulations.
Chapter Two plays through November 19 at Schenectady Civic Players, 12 South Church Street, Schenectady. For more information or tickets, www.civicplayers.com or call 518-382-2081