I am not much of a fan of Neil Simon’s plays, but I try to remain open-minded if I review one. Contemporary Theatre of Dallas’ current production of Simon’s Chapter Two should thrill true-blue Neil Simon devotees. Don’t let my ambivalence deter you.
Simon wrote this two couple comedy with dark overtones in 1977 after he moved to California, which may explain its rapid succession of short cinematic-like scenes. The entire first act is a string of such short scenes, all expository in nature. I found myself wondering when the prologue would end and the action begin.
The play is billed as semi-autobiographical. Simon, a widower, had recently wooed and married actress Marsha Mason. In this play the main character, a successful middle-aged novelist, has problems getting over the death of his first wife and meets, woos and marries a soap opera divorcee on a whirlwind whim. When the play was adapted for film in 1979, Marsha Mason played the part of the second wife, which must have felt odd.
In CTD’s current production, ever-capable director Cynthia Hestand has assembled a strong cast of regional actors very suited to the characters they portray. Quick study Scott Latham plays novelist George with a steady ease and familiarity that belies the fact he took on the role a scant two weeks before opening, when the original actor became ill and had to withdraw. Lots of initiatory lines, some non sequitur, scads of complicated blocking—it’s rewarding to watch a real pro negotiate those challenges sans bobble and make it look like he’s had a full rehearsal schedule to grow into his role. Opposite him as the soap opera actress Jennie is the well-versed and nationally experienced Marcia Carroll. The chemistry clicks immediately between the pair, thanks to their complimentary skills and director Hestand’s firm grip on Simon’s wordy script. Jennie spends a lot of time fussing, whining and groveling, once she marries George. She never lets up. With a lesser actor, the profusion of codependent dialogue would have been hard to take. There is a shockingly unexamined and out of character surprise in Act II—stage violence — Jennie slaps George twice, hard; he then knocks her to the floor. Did Simon really write it that way? Did he find spousal abuse funny? The actors pick themselves up and go on with the scene, never discussing the violent outburst or altering their relationship in any way because of it. I never could relax afterwards, wondering if/when the abuse might emerge again.
As comic contrast, Jennie’s best friend Faye attempts to have an extra-marital affair with George’s brother Leo. The well-matched romantic team of Sue Loncar and super-kinetic Ted Wold romp through their scenes, pre-Viagra, providing welcome relief from the narcissism, dismissive cruelty and incessant nattering of the lead couple. Loncar can toss off a pithy comic line with perfect deadpan timing; in Wold she has found a sparkling match. The off-kilter, middle-aged Yin Yang energy generated between Loncar and Wold is worth the price of admission, alone.
Neil Simon’s Chapter Two opened on December 4, 1978 at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway. In January 1979 it moved to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre where it garnered a very respectable run of 857 performances. It was nominated for the 1978 Tony Award for Best Play. Clearly celebrated at its time, today Chapter Two feels over-written; its unexpected episode of spousal abuse veers off a cliff from the rest of the play. CTD’s production team has worked its usual magic with sumptuous set, costumes, sound, lights. The acting ensemble and director could hardly improve upon their performances. Fans of Neil Simon: go to.