Review: Stage West keeps it light between love and grief in Chapter Two

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Playwright Neil Simon and Stage West are both in fine form with Chapter Two, Simon’s most personal comedy playing at the dinner theatre until April 14.

Written in 1977, Chapter Two tells the story of George Schneider, a grieving, widowed writer who is so despondent he can no longer write or function socially. His brother Leo conspires with soap opera actress Faye Medwick to match George with Jennie Malone, a stage actress who recently divorced her philandering husband.

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Chapter Two is loosely based on Simon’s second marriage to actress Marsha Mason after the death of his first wife. With his earlier works, Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Last of the Red Hot Lovers and Plaza Suite, Simon had cemented his reputation for writing uproarious social comedies. Chapter Two was only a departure because it ventured into much trickier emotional territory, which Simon navigated skillfully by front-loading the first half of the play with his trademark barrage of hilarious repartee.

In the first half of the second act, Simon proves he can also write powerful, insightful, riveting drama when George (David Silvestri) and Jennie (Kristi Woods) lay bare the pain they have felt in the past, and the hurt they are currently enduring with each other. Simon was well aware of what audiences expected of him, so he weaves in a slapstick subplot in which Leo (Luke Marty) and Faye (Susie Burnett) decide a little casual adultery might add some spice to their rocky marriages. How Simon resolves both couples’ dilemmas is as masterful as it is hilarious and heartwarming.

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This comedy boasts a first-class acting ensemble.

Silvestri delivers Simon’s jokes without coming off like a stand-up comic, and he can handle George’s grief without being a self-indulgent sad sack. He makes us like George, so, like Leo, we hope he will start dating again and, at least, find companionship if not love.

Jennie is one of the strongest female characters Simon has written, and Woods makes her a match for George, and for Silvestri. Woods makes us believe George’s series of bumbling telephone calls were enough to make Jennie agree to see him. In the emotionally raw argument that opens the second act, Woods’ response to Silvestri’s hurtful tirade is so good, that she received a fitting loud ovation.

David Silvestri and Kristi Woods in Chapter Two at Stage West. cal

As George’s younger brother Leo, Marty is all preening bombast. This is one of Simon’s favourite character types – just think Oscar Madison from The Odd Couple. These characters always have a sensitive, sincere side, and Marty finds several places to let that part of Leo shine, as when he explains to Faye why he is not monogamous.

Burnett knows a great role when she sees one and, with Faye, Simon has written a delicious role for a supporting actor. Faye is neurotic, as well as emotionally and sexually deprived. What she’s hoping she’s setting up for her best friend Jennie is what she desperately wants and needs for herself. Watching Burnett tangle with Marty’s self-styled lothario, juggling passion and guilt simultaneously is hilarious because Burnett is a fearless actor.

Anton deGroot’s set captures the living rooms of both George and Jennie’s apartments, and Simon has written his series of scenes so that there is no need for the annoying blackouts used. As one actor exits a particular apartment, another is meant to enter the opposite one seamlessly. Elliott keeps the action and the dialogue moving at breakneck speed. There’s little time to savour the jokes, but that’s all the more reason to revisit this play before it closes on April 14.

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