Life brings us great gifts: A coveted job, a stable marriage, a newborn full of promise. It also presents us with great, sometimes seemingly unbearable, losses: a fire that destroys everything, a protracted illness, the loss of a spouse. But the real smack in the head is when life gives us great gifts and great losses in the same moment.
This is the charged setting for Neil Simon’s “Chapter Two,” which opens ATC’s 51st season. The 1977 comedy is one of the first of his plays that shows Simon possesses more in his writer’s bag than just jokes. This piece reveals not only the comic brilliance of his one-liners and wit, but his willingness to look earnestly at the complexities of what it means to be human.
George Schneider (David Mason) is a youngish widower, having recently lost his wife of 12 years to illness. He has no idea how to deal with his profound grief. He’s a writer and a bit of an introvert and has just returned from what was hoped to be a trip to help gain perspective and possible acceptance and healing. He chose to go to all the places he and wife had gone together. That’s how clueless this guy is.
His brother Leo—and as Ben Huber plays him, the polar opposite of introversion—tries to encourage him to start keeping company with women looking for companionship. George is not interested.
Jennie (Blair Baker), an actress, lives across town from George. Her divorce from her husband of six years has just been finalized, and her friend Faye (Diana Pappas) would love for her to audition some potential suitors for the next chapter of her life. Jennie is not interested.
In a case of mistaken phone numbers, George calls Jennie, and in what has to be one of the most cleverly written courtship scenes ever, the two are intrigued with each other. (Mason and Blair nail this scene perfectly.) The phone calls lead to a hasty courtship and an even hastier tying of the knot. But this haste is not without its consequences.
An example of the challenges mentioned above is the duo of Faye and Leo. They are necessary to move the story, but neither is a particularly interesting character, even though Huber and Pappas are fine enough. The seams of playwriting show here.
The play was written in 1977 and it has a sensibility that reads 1970s. Other more recent revivals of the piece have produced it as a period piece—with 70s decor and costumes and other conventions of the time. However, Mason has chosen to place it in our decade of the 21st century, with cell phones and computers and such paraphernalia. But the play doesn’t reflect the cultural trappings these phenomena have produced.
It just doesn’t translate well. It’s as though these clothes don’t quite fit that body. Certainly, there is a timelessness in the essence of the story. But the way the story is told, the conventions within which it is set, is unmistakably 1970s. It can’t be totally successful and credible by plunking it down in a very different time.
It doesn’t spoil everything, however. We still get a heartfelt and expertly written story delivered by fine actors in a credible and touching way. And that’s a beautiful thing.