Fine ‘Chapter Two’ kicks off third season for Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope
By John Dwyer
In the summer of 2012, the newly-reopened Bucks County Playhouse paid tribute to two Broadway greats with Playhouse and Bucks County roots — Oscar Hammerstein, with It’s a Grand Night for Singing, and the most famous of our past New Hope to Broadway transports, Barefoot in the Park. Now, in its third season since going equity, we are blessed with a noteworthy production of Chapter Two, which originally premiered in New York in 1977.
It is a remarkable production due to several considerations. It is directed by the Academy Award-nominated actress Marsha Mason, who was the inspiration for the play. Due to her closeness to the material, it is perfectly cast with a director at the stern who knows precisely the motivation of the characters. The play is semi-autobiographical, and was written as a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to Ms. Mason for bearing with the writer as he went forward with his life after the untimely passing of his first wife Joan Baim. It is a painful version of boy meets girl, but in this instance it starts with boy loses girl, gets another girl, loses girl and then gets girl.
The play begins with novelist George Schneider returning from a European vacation where he tried to lessen the pain from the passing of his first wife. He comes home with his brother Leo, a brassy press agent who still senses that his brother is depressed and attempts to fix him up with a friend of a friend whom he met at the bar. George doesn’t want to speak to anyone but, as fate would have it, he mistakenly calls Jennie Malone and it appears to be ‘like at first hear’. Jennie was just divorced, and the play revolves around taking second chances and opening oneself up to additional pain.
In counterbalance to the ‘second chances with a new partner’ theme, there is a subplot with Leo and his friend Faye who both are married and both are bored. In describing to Jennie his marriage in counterpoint to his brother’s first marriage, Leo says, “They were very close. After 10 years, they’d still hold hands. After 11 years, I don’t pass the salt.” George is skeptical of re-committing to anyone, as most matches were not as perfect as the one he had. He also fears that if he allows himself to get close to someone else, he will diminish the memory of Barbara, his first wife.
Unlike his earlier plays that are most memorable for a laugh-a-minute structured around a comic premise, this is Mr. Simon’s journey into the more painful part of his life. Perhaps because of his loss, Mr. Simon became a more textured playwright with Chapter Two, and embarks on examining more complex issues than earlier plays such as Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple. From here, he went on to write Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Lost in Yonkers. This play is a shift in tone from earlier works and is arguably his most personal work. The one-liners that are his forte and come so effortlessly to him are still there, but now serve to hide pain and avoid conflict.
He stated in “Understanding Neil Simon” (2002) by Susan Koprince, “I think part of what made me a comedy writer is the blocking out of some of the really ugly, painful things in my childhood and covering it up with a humorous attitude…do something to laugh until I was able to forget what was hurting. My view is ‘how sad and funny life is.’ I can’t think of a humorous situation that does not involve some pain. I used to ask, ‘What is a funny situation?’ Now I ask, ‘What is a sad situation and how can I tell it humorously?'”
The play’s ending seems abrupt, but it is a more difficult piece of writing, as it is a more difficult piece of living when you know that ‘happily ever after’ is supplanted by ‘happily for now’.
In describing George, Faye tells Jennie that “he has an intelligent face,” a back-handed compliment toward the author’s autobiographically-inspired character. Joey Slotnick is pitch perfect as George with the intelligent face. Jennie Malone requires an actress who can bring the strength and vulnerability that the role requires, and the wonderful Anastasia Griffith was effortlessly up to the task. Michael Nathanson inhabits the role of Leo with the right amount of aggression that is his press agent personality and the right amount of overbearing love and caring. Nadia Bowers in her U.S. theatrical premier is hysterical as Jennie’s best friend.
A splendid set design was created by Lauren Helpern. The overlapping layering of the apartments was masterful, and gave a sense of apartment living. Lighting design by Zach Blane, coupled with the set design, provided seamless shifting from one setting to another, adding greater continuity to the unfolding story.
A couple of asides: On opening night May 23 , Manny Azenbug, Broadway producing legend and original producer of this show, was in the audience with his lovely wife, Lani. Playwrights Christoper Durang and John Augustine were also in attendance, along with many other notable New Hope denizens and New Yorkers.
And on a final note, Bucks County Playhouse opened on July 1, 1939; the refurbished Playhouse began enjoying its own ‘chapter two’ on July 2, 2012; and Neil Simon was born on July 4, 1927. Happy birthday to all!
Chapter Two runs through June 15 at the Bucks County Playhouse (70 South Main Street in New Hope).
John Dwyer has a BFA from the University of Detroit in theater, and has acted and directed regionally. Aside from writing reviews, Dwyer has produced for the Bridge Theater Company and for local charity fundraisers.