Story: Novelist George Schneider has recently returned from a vacation to Europe, which he had taken to help ease the grief he experienced at the death of his wife. George hasn’t yet come to terms with that death, which followed what he considered an idyllic 12-year marriage.
George’s press agent brother, Leo, has set him up with one disastrous date after another in the hope of bringing George back to the living. Inadvertently, George contacts Jennie Malone, a soap opera actress who has recently ended an unhappy marriage to a football player. Jennie is best friends with Faye, a woman who knows the philandering Leo well and who has her own marital problems. Faye tells Leo about Jennie, Leo leaves Jennie’s number at George’s apartment and George makes connections with her in his own circuitous fashion.
At first annoyed by George’s quirkiness, Jennie quickly grows fond of him and is ready for a more serious relationship. George says that he is, too, but his moody and sullen behavior indicates that might not be the case.
Highlights: Neil Simon wrote this semi-autobiographical play in 1977, based on his relationship with his second wife, actress Marsha Mason, after the death of his beloved first wife. Following an opening in Los Angeles, it moved to Broadway and ran for more than 850 performances.
Insight Theatre Company featured native St. Louisan and Nerinx Hall alumna Mason as the guest at its June 9 gala and opens its 2013 season with a production of this bittersweet play that was written from her ex-husband’s point of view, but one that Mason says she loves.
Other Info: Director Susie Wall taps into the talents of four accomplished performers in the presentation, but this is a case where the parts are better than the whole. Viewing Chapter Two, and listening to an almost continual stream of one-liners interrupted by spasms of self-pity, indicates that this is one of Simon’s lesser efforts artistically if not commercially.
Particularly problematic is the fact that two of the four characters, Leo and Faye, aren’t really people at all but merely extended plot devices through which Simon funnels an endless font of gags that start out uproariously funny but stagger eventually into forced and dreary comedy.
Jerry Russo and Jenni Ryan play those roles in typical, over-the-top Simon style. Whereas that broad approach works in shows such as The Odd Couple or Laughter on the 23rd Floor, here it is painfully unfortunate.
John Pierson effectively portrays the lead character, George, and is most amusing when he first meets Jennie and courts her in eccentric, unorthodox fashion. Pierson is very good as well in capturing the wellspring of grief that pervades George’s spirit and also in depicting George’s savage cruelty to Jennie to assuage his guilt about his first wife’s death.
The real shining light of the production, though, is Katy Tibbets. As Jennie, she imbues the presentation with an upbeat resilience, resigned to the immaturity of her ex-husband but finding something to love in him all the same. She extends that optimism to her relationship with George, which Tibbets portrays in an engaging, embracing and accepting fashion.
Mark Wilson’s handsome scenic design features adjoining apartments, one for George and one for Jennie, which accentuate the differences in their sexes as well as their personalities, with a deep blue New York City skyline in the background. Dave Hinson’s sound design includes a number of pop tunes from the era that on the surface seem to have little in common, while Emily Gaither’s costumes smartly convey the fashions of the era. Jim Ryan’s props complement the set.
Wall keeps the pace moving in the two-act work as best she can, and the players perform admirably on the spacious stage. The problem, though, is that Chapter Two is more annoying than affecting, more irritating than endearing. If Simon purged his demons by over-writing this treacle before getting back into top form, its catharsis is understandable. It just isn’t very entertaining.
Play: Chapter Two
Company: Insight Theatre Company
Venue: Heagney Theatre, Nerinx Hall, 530 East Lockwood Avenue
Dates: June 13, 14, 15, 16
Tickets: $15-$30; contact 556-1293 or brownpapertickets.com
Rating: A 3 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb