I have to admit a bias here: I don’t look forward to reviewing productions of Neil Simon plays.
I’m not in the age demographic that mostly appreciates Simon’s gentle, sentimental comedies; I won’t be for another couple of decades. His dialogue can sound musty and sitcommy, rudderless without a laugh track. Unless he’s writing a charmingly stylized farce like “Rumors,” the unnatural patter of his dialogue – the inserted gags every 20 seconds or so – keeps me at an emotional arms’ length. That’s what happens when actors become automatons to a writer’s wit.
All of this comic business will inevitably yield pleasant, consonant and most of all expected results. Simon’s populist storylines aim less to challenge and provoke than to send everyone home happy.
“Chapter Two,” the 1977 Simon dramedy now playing at the Plaza Theatre in Manalapan, has a bit more depth than others, if not more teeth. It’s based in part on Simon’s relationship with his second wife, Marsha Mason, and the difficulty he had in starting over after the premature death of his first spouse. Wayne LeGette plays George Schneider, the Simon stand-in, who is recently widowed and makes a nice living writing dime-store spy novels under a pretentious pseudonym. His garrulous brother Leo (Kenneth Kay) tries to set him up on dates, most of which fail miserably until Jennie Malone (Mia Matthews), a weary divorcee and actress, enters the picture. A reticent first meeting between George and Jennie blossoms into something like love at first sight, a hasty marriage and the emotional and psychological roadblocks the new spouses encounter in unpacking the grief George never fully dealt with. The resulting arguments, all of them in Act Two, are some of the cruelest and most cutting exchanges in Simon’s canon, a welcome respite from the ceaseless gag fest of Act One.
Even at a duration of roughly two and a half hours, Michael Leeds’ direction here comes across as hurried, especially in the early going, before the lovers meet. The scenes between George and Leo, and between Jennie and best friend Faye (Kim Cozort), move with a sense of overcaffeinated hyperspeed, as if Leeds subconsciously wanted to fast-forward through them and get to the good stuff. When plays are criticized for being talky, even though most of theater is all talk, it’s because they sound like this, and we don’t necessarily buy it.
The production improves when George and Jennie meet, and a bit of awkward silence goes a long way. And it continues improving, coasting on the infectious chemistry between LeGette and Matthews, who are as comfortable with cutesy repartee as they are mental knife-twisting; Simon’s script provides ample opportunities for both. Kay and Cozort are given a very funny scene together in Act Two, partly as a relief from the heaviness in the main storyline, and the fun they’re having – with Kay pantless and Cozort’s hair shooting up in an electric frizz – spills over into the audience. (Knowing that these two performers are married in real life only enhances the comedy).
Michael McClain’s dual living-room scenic design is handsomely adorned and well-propped, though parts of it look like they would collapse if you blew on them hard enough. His most clever touch is, instead of building autonomous sets for each main character’s abode, he built one set bisected in the center by an invisible line. Stage left is George’s empty-nest writer’s den, and stage right is Jennie’s clean, green, bright living space. The two distinct arrangements are imbued with the yin-and-yang personalities of their occupants, resulting in a solution that is both economical and artistic. More than anything else in this production, it’s this element that raises Simon’s well-worn words to another level.
“Chapter Two” is at the Plaza Theatre, 262 S. Ocean Blvd., Miami, through Feb. 10. Tickets cost $45. Call 561/588-1820 or visit theplazatheatre.net.