Preview: Neil Simon turns the page on widowhood with Chapter Two

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Having written 32 plays between 1961 and 2003, Neil Simon is one of America’s most prolific playwrights. He also wrote 25 screenplays, justifiably winning him the title of America’s king of comedy,

For the third production of its current season, Stage West is presenting Simon’s Chapter Two, his most personal play because it deals with his rocky courtship with actress Marsha Mason after the death of his first wife in 1973.

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When Chapter Two was turned into a film in 1979, Mason played Jennie Malone, the character she inspired, garnering an Oscar nomination, one of three roles Simon wrote for her.

In Stage West’s Chapter Two, which runs until April 14, David Silvestri plays George Schneider, a recently widowed writer whose press agent brother Leo (Luke Marty) tries to get George to start dating Jennie Malone (Krisit Woods), a recent divorcee. Leo’s co-conspirator in this dating game is Jennie’s best friend Faye played by Susie Burnett.

Ann Wedgeworth won the 1978 Tony Award for best-supporting performance for playing Faye, with the role going to Valerie Harper for the film.

“It’s so cool that Neil Simon wrote this play because it tells the truth of how difficult things are in starting over when a relationship fails. I know because I’m kind of there now. I’m looking to start over, and Simon gives you hope when you find yourself in this situation. Best of all, he says you can find love at any time of life,” says Burnett.

Chapter Two is set in the 1970s which, Burnett points out, made getting a second chance even more difficult.

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“There were no online dating sites back then so it was far more difficult to meet someone. You really had to rely on friends to set you up which is what happens for George and Jennie, except neither of them really wants to find someone new at this point. George, especially, is still grieving the death of his wife.”

Simon was 46 when he started dating Mason who was 31, and these are the ages he made the characters in his play.

Burnett says, “It’s important the characters be a little older because they have a much better idea of what they want and don’t want in a partner. They’re not blind when they start this new chapter in their lives.”

The irony of Leo and Faye playing Cupid is they also find themselves falling for each other.

“Faye is not happy in her marriage or even her life, but back in the ’70s, society said it was your responsibility to try to work things out. So we have four people grappling with new feelings.”

Despite the real issues explored, Burnett says Chapter Two is a comedy.

“There are serious undertones but this is still a very funny play because it has such heart at its core. You can picture yourself in these characters, and their situations. It’s an ideal play for dinner theatre. It’s playing to an audience that can identify with the characters on stage whether it’s themselves or someone they know. For some people there might just be a few tears as well as laughs.”

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For Burnett, this is her chapter four at Stage West, having previously starred in There Goes the Bride, Elvis Has Left the Building and Screwball Comedy.

“Given the current state of the world, comedy is so important. People want to laugh, and they need to laugh. I love hearing that laughter every evening. Doing Screwball Comedy at Stage West was such an uplifting experience for me and for the audiences. It was the first play after the pandemic. You could just feel how much people wanted to laugh. There are so many problems we can’t do anything about these days which is why people are looking for a couple of hours of nothing but smiles and laughs.”

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