In playwright Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple” and “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” he addresses the vicissitudes of life by laying bare the psyches of his characters with wit and humor and sure-fire repartee. His impressively large body of work shows him as a versatile storyteller who enlightens while entertaining and vice versa.
In “Chapter Two,” he exposed his own soul, tortured by grief over the death of his first wife from cancer and thereafter guilt over his falling too quickly in love with another woman, actress Marsha Mason.
“Chapter Two,” scheduled to open at Laguna Playhouse on Jan. 12, made its debut at Los Angeles’s Ahmanson Theatre where during 1977-78 it earned the Drama Critics Circle awards for distinguished production and distinguished playwriting.
Ann E. Wareham, who joined the Playhouse as artistic director in 2011, recalls falling in love with the production while then working at the Ahmanson and brought it to Laguna.
“I picked it because I do think that it is his most beautiful and poignant play. When it first premiered at the Ahmanson, it was a beautiful production that people had not quite seen before, but they got it. It was a gift that he gave himself and Marsha Mason to explain what was going on in his head while they were married,” she said.
She added that “Chapter Two” characters are people the audience likes, roots for and laughs with, albeit at times through tears.
Andrew Barnicle, the Playhouse’s former artistic director, returns to direct the show. “Andy is good for this play. He knows how to get inside of those characters and understands what their emotional journey is supposed to be,” she said.
Barnicle left the Playhouse in 2010 to direct, act and teach on a freelance basis, criss-crossing territory between San Diego and Los Angeles. His teaching gigs include a recent stint teaching Shakespeare for an afterschool program at Laguna Beach High School.
“After ‘Brighton Beach Trilogy,’ ‘Chapter Two’ is Simon’s best play. People are clever and funny but issues are serious. It’s an actor’s play,” he said.
In a preview performance this past Tuesday, the connection between cast and audience appeared instantaneous. The action is set in actress Jennie Malone’s upper East Side apartment and writer George Schneider’s swankier lower Central Park West digs. Four flawed but likable characters, George and his publicist brother Leo Schneider, Jennie, and her best friend, actress Faye Medwick, populate the sets. The four grapple with dysfunctional marriages, divorce and contemplation or consummation of extra-marital affairs, with George’s grief over the loss of his wife and soul-mate, Barbara, driving the story.
While George is still romantically flat-lined, Leo, wrestling with attachment problems of his own, relentlessly pushes him into meeting women again. Through comical twists that give the audience broad hints of neuroses soon to surface, George meets Jennie who, recovering from divorce, is initially as reluctant to date again as he.
George, portrayed by Geoffrey Lower, and Caroline Kinsolving embodying Jennie, cover the spectrum of emotions from breathless bliss to biting hostility. Kevin Ashworth’s Leo embodies personas of loving brother and self-centered putz, attempting and abandoning efforts to reform his own philandering. The character of Faye Medwick, Jennie’s brash but vulnerable sidekick, appears, thanks to Leslie Stevens’ humorous timing, if not always embraceable, believable.
In two acts, Simon airs his own grief and pays tribute to Mason, on whom he based Jennie. Barnicle’s direction set an atmospheric pitch that resonated with an audience, composed largely of older couples, who responded with pin pointed laughter and silences, with some offering a standing ovation at the end.
Final preview performance of “Chapter Two” is Friday, Jan. 11, 8 p.m. Opening Saturday, Jan. 12, at 7:30 p.m. Through Feb. 3. Tickets $35-$65 at www.lagunaplayhouse.com or 949-497-2787.