Also see Richard's reviews of After the Revolution, Good People and Darlene Popovic at Society Cabaret
The play veers wildly from one extreme to another. One moment it's wisecracking and sardonic, and in the next, dripping with pathos. One scene ends and love is in the air. The next begins and out come the knives. It's the masks of theatre, weeping and laughing, embodied for us. But because this is from the skilled Neil Simon, it sort of works. Though sometimes a bit creaky, the wisecracks generally land and help this longish (2.5+ hours with intermission) play pull us along.
Though there are significantly more laughs than tears, don't expect an entirely lighthearted evening. Amid the cracks about life outside Manhattan ("In Cleveland, a couple of days are a couple of weeks.") and dealbreakers for dating ("I don't want to go out with a man that wears more jewelry than me.") is a lot of unresolved pain.
As lights come up, George Schneider (David Shirk) and Jennie Malone (Kate Fox Marcom) are stuck to the couches in their mirror-image apartments (another binary element of the play), experiencing the early stages of grief: moving from comatose to ambulatory to at-least-willing-to-leave-the-apartment. George's wife has died after only 12 years of marriage, Jennie's marriage to former football player has ended in divorce, and neither is getting over their respective loss in haste.
After a brief blackout, director James Nelson dives into the text. It's some time later and George and his publicist brother Leo (Johnny DeBernard) have returned from a trip intended to take George's mind off his loss, but which achieved the opposite effect, since George wanted to visit only the places he and his beloved had gone on their honeymoon. Loyal brother that he is, Leo decides the next best tactic is to fix George up.
At stage left, Jennie is also returning to her apartmentalso from a vacation intended to distract her from her grief. In tow is Faye (Jennifer Reimer), a slightly neurotic but endearing fellow actress, also encouraging her bestie to get back in the game.
In George's apartment, the heat is off, milk has curdled, and the bread has "turned into pumpernickel all on its own." At Jennie's place (in binary fashion) yang is yin. She had the super turn on the heat that morning and had left an order for fresh groceries to be delivered.
Soon enough, their paths cross, George and Jennie meet cute (thanks to a dialing errorwhich would have been much funnier if George had had Jennie's rotary phone), and their relationship goes from zero to 60 from one scene to the next.
But as George and Jennie will find out, making a relationship work is very difficult. So is making great theater. While the Ross Valley Players are to be lauded for their sincere efforts, this productionwhile entertainingcould use some polishing. Though all four actors deliver workmanlike performances, all tend to suffer from their own binary issues: in one scene or interaction, they can be "on", engaged with the text and their fellow performers; yet in the next scene the switch might flip to "off" and we sense the actors struggling to forget they are on stage and more fully inhabit their characters. Of the four, Jennifer Reimer is the most consistently genuine. She has the best comic timing of the troupe and seems most at ease being Faye.
Likewise, James Nelson's direction is steadyperhaps too steady. A little variation in pace might help the dramatic scenes land with more oomph, and the comedic bits to fly by more swiftly and gracefully.
Finally, the set by Eugene DeChristopher (with props by Maureen Scheuenstuhl) is the most disappointing aspect of the production. Flat, bland and unappealing is not a terrific combo. The split stage is undeniably true to the binary nature of the play, and a regional company working with almost non-existent budgets must be given some leeway, but it doesn't cost more to use paint colors that are attractive and complementary. And why not reinforce the humor of two opposite approaches to organization? George's apartmentwhile still identical in dimension to super-organized Jennie'sshould be messier and more cluttered. George is a bit like Oscar Madison, without Felix Unger to pick up after him.
If you like Neil Simon, and a little sentimentality doesn't ruin your evening, you can look past the clunky set and inconsistent performances and enjoy the warm and sincere heart of both Simon's play and Robert Wilson's production of it.
Neil Simon's Chapter Two is playing Thursdays-Sundays through October 13 at the Barn Theatre in Ross. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. (No performance on Sunday, September 15.) Weekend ticket prices are $26 general admission, $22 for seniors (62+) and $13 for children under 18. Thursday night tickets are $20 for all ages. Tickets can be ordered by calling 415-456-9555, ext. 1 or visiting www.rossvalleyplayers.com.