"Thirtieth Anniversary Production" of
Morristown's Bickford Theatre is a modest little equity theatre situated at the local Morris Museum which can be relied upon to present affectionate, pleasant productions of light entertainments, often from the 1960s and '70s (>Butterflies Are Free; A Thousand Clowns; You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown). Bickford is at it again with their current production, Chapter Two. However, Bickford's production is so well acted and directed, and so stylishly produced, that it may be grandly described as the "Thirtieth Anniversary Production of Neil Simon's Chapter Two", even if the original Broadway production did not open until December of 1977.
Although it managed an impressive slightly more than two-year Broadway run, Chapter Two is far from a perfect play. Immediately following Simon's first drama The Gingerbread Lady, Chapter Two was still a major departure from his earlier work. In this deeply felt, very personal, semi-autobiographic play, Simon attempted for the first time to combine his immensely successful gag filled playwrighting with seriousness and pathos. It would be another six years until Simon would successfully do so with Brighton Beach Memoirs. The pathos, largely confined to the second act, comes in fits and starts and is introduced arbitrarily.
We meet novelist George Schneider upon his return to Manhattan from an unhappy European vacation. His deep depression, resulting from the cancer-caused death of his wife of twelve years (the "c" word is never actually spoken), is played for laughs. After a couple of disastrous evenings, George is no longer accepting dates arranged by his well meaning brother Leo. However, George, seeking to dial another number written on the same paper, unintentionally dials a number left by Leo. It turns out to be the number of a truly adorable, totally loving actress, Jennie Malone, who is recovering from her recent divorce. The repeated, one-after-the-other calls made to Jennie by George in the next ten minutes carry this "meeting cute" device to an extreme. The upshot is that George and Jennie are instantly smitten and marry after knowing each other a mere two weeks.
Conflict does not arise until the second act when George and Jennie return from their Caribbean honeymoon. It seems that George has deliberately been hostile to Jennie on their honeymoon and is now continuing this behavior. His reasons? Well, Jennie is just not Barbara (his first wife), and he feels guilty being happy with Barbara gone. Little Jennie Malone is perfection. She so loves George that she will put up with any mistreatment and indignity (and will have to) in order to regain George's love. Oh, Jennie has one fault. She is more docile, less of a firebrand, than Barbara, and thus unable to satisfy George's taste for confrontation. Five years after Chapter Two opened on Broadway, Neil Simon and his marriage to second wife, actress Marsha Mason (after whom Jennie is modeled), was kaput. While I do not believe that Mason or anyone could ever be perfect as Jennie, I have no reason to doubt Simon's accuracy in portraying his own alter ego, the prickly, self-centered George.
There is a secondary comic affair in the mix. Leo dated Jennie's best friend and fellow sitcom actress Faye before both entered into their respective currently unhappy marriages. Now they have reconnected and are ineptly and guiltily attempting to have a liaison in Jennie's available apartment. However, they prove too decent and full of care for one another to consummate it.
What makes Chapter Two an agreeable entertainment despite its weaknesses is Simon's terrific gift for witty dialogue. Placed in the heartfelt (if flawed) context of Chapter Two with its likeable, warm characters (even his George is likeable for one act), it is pleasurable to listen to it.
Paul Mantell has chosen to underplay George. There is a softening, quiet charm in this interpretation. Mantell's style in quietly expressing his passive and active aggression is believable, and adds to our acceptance of Leo and Jennie's love for him. On the other hand, Mantell's performance mellows the lively, sharp tongued Simon humor. Robin Marie Thomas is totally wining and adorable as Jennie. I may never be able to fully believe in Simon's Jennie, but I can't help but believe in Robin Marie. These roles seem to be, quite effectively, cast more maturely than usual, and it would be helpful if an adjustment were made in the stated ages of George and Jennie.
In the context of the gentler interpretation of the role of George, it is especially helpful that Gary Littman brings a robust nervous energy to the role of Leo. A brash New Yorker to the core, Littman's Leo brings a palpable spark to the proceedings. Katrina Ferguson brings a sly, off-centered quality to the bumbling approach to liaisons by Faye.
Ted Sod has directed with smooth fluidity, employing jazzy, romantic recordings from the American Songbook sung by Ella Fitzgerald and others to bridge the many scenes. This is extremely helpful in the second act with its abrupt shifts between broad humor and pathos from one scene to the next.
Credit the detailed, well appointed, and contrasting twin sets for George and Jennie's Manhattan apartments, each occupying one side of the wide stage, and their painted skyscraper backdrop to the excellent design of Ted Simpson. Kim Cokelet has designed the appropriate and attractive costumes.
It is most interesting to again see this transitional Simon play which came at the midpoint of his playwrighting career. In the hands of director Ted Sod and his endearing cast, and performed in the jewel box setting of the Bickford Theatre, Chapter Two proves a pleasurable entertainment.
Chapter Two continues performances (Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m.) through June 3, 2007 at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, NJ 07960. Box Office: 973-971-3706; online www.bickfordtheatre.org/.
Chapter Two by Neil Simon; directed by Ted Sod