(Laguna Beach, CA) January, 2013 – Don’t let online dating services fool you: relationships are not that simple, they are not that smooth, and they are not instantaneous…especially if one of the individuals involved is a widower still grieving for his deceased wife, and if the other individual is a divorcée still emotionally wounded from an unloving marriage. But if a literary master like playwright Neil Simon can conjure his creative magic by stirring a complex romantic mixture of loss and humor, then the results are a wonderful witch’s brew called Chapter Two. And to produce this thoughtful play at the Laguna Playhouse is a perfect way to begin the New Year. Courtesy of Andrew Barnicle’s deft direction and his talented actors, Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical love story captures all the romantic laughs and tender-hearted tears.
Best-selling author George Schneider (Geoffrey Lower) returns from a month-long vacation in Europe, a vacation that he hoped would help him emotionally heal after his wife of twelve years, Barbara, dies from cancer. But George is far from healed; he’s fidgety, trying to keep as busy as possible, and his eyes are still sunken with sadness and despair. His brother Leo (Kevin Ashworth) notices this, which results in Leo doing what any meddling (but loyal) brother would do: he fixes George up with women in order to fill in the void. This action leads to one dating disaster after another, until Leo runs into an old ex-flame of his, Faye (Leslie Stevens), who happens to be friends with the recently-divorced Jennie (Caroline Kinsolving), an actress who possesses a mixture of dry wit and compassionate sensitivity. Leo and Faye are ecstatic; they have created a perfect match. And when George and Jennie meet, the sparks do indeed fly. But as the story progresses, George’s emotional pain is still present and it is up Jennie’s seemingly infinite patience, as well as George’s courage to confront his denial, in order for the relationship to truly begin, grow, and evolve.
Watching Simon’s themes about the loss of a loved one was reminiscent of the opening narrative quote from Guillermo Del Toro’s cinematic ghost tale, The Devil’s Backbone: “What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time.” An odd, but very accurate comparison to say the least. This particular play is very autobiographical to Simon. Like George, Simon lost his own wife when he was in his forties. He dedicated this play to his second wife, actress Marsha Mason, who Jennie is loosely based on. Simon, too, walked down a long road of suffering in order to heal from this loss, which tested Mason’s tolerance and patience to its limits, very much what Jennie had to go through with George. And in order to flesh out that difficult journey, but also add the right humorous touches that Simon interlaces throughout the play, you need two talented artists that combine pathos and comedic timing, as well as possessing a romantic chemistry. And the casting of Lower and Kinsolving in the lead roles is absolute perfection. Lower’s ability to combine self-deprecating humor with doubtful guilt about his happiness with Jennie is as masterful as watching a trapeze artist walking a tightrope. Lower’s George not only represents Simon’s alter-ego, he represents any compassionate human being trying to heal from the loss of a spouse and to move on with his life. The ghost of Barbara is present on stage in the form of George’s anger, guilt, and devotion and Lower portrays this emotional range in incredible ways. This is also especially evident with Kinsolving’s Jennie. Her initial phone conversations with George reveal each facet of her personality and charm one layer at a time with her body language and most notably her facial expressions as George shares his life and his loss (and when the subject of the deceased wife is brought up, Kinsolving looks as if she suffered along with Lower). And when Kinsolving’s compassion and patience has been put to the test by George’s abusive behavior, she finally explodes with a monologue that is laced with outrage, courage, and loyalty to the man she loves. It’s a powerful moment for Kinsolving, resulting in the audience applauding at the end of her speech.
In order to lighten the serious, thought-provoking tones of Chapter Two, Simon wonderfully creates “the flawed buddies” for the protagonists, and the play couldn’t do better than Ashworth’s Leo and Stevens’ Faye. Ashworth’s playboy Leo looks like a 1970’s version of a young Jack Nicholson with his polyester clothing and his thin mustache. But behind the macho bravado is a hidden insecurity that he is incapable of having a monogamous relationship. His most pitiful moment occurs when he admits that even though he has affairs behind his wife’s back, he still loves her, revealing a soul more lost than George. And Stevens’ Faye is reminiscent of the histrionic Eunice Higgins, the brilliant character creation of Carol Burnett. Stevens’ brassy southern charm is a shield that hides a sensitive vulnerability. And when she attempts to have her first affair in order to forget about her own unhappy marriage, Stevens becomes at first hilariously frantic, which then ebbs to down to embarrassment, then levels out to a type of quiet, poignant dignity.
But there are two additional “characters” in the play: the beautiful scenic design by Bruce Goodrich and the nuanced direction by Andrew Barnicle. The stage is split into two settings: Jennie’s upper East Side apartment and George’s lower Central Park West apartment. But instead of just dividing the stage vertically straight down the middle, Goodrich’s two apartment settings are almost diagonally overlapped with each other. Although the action between each setting never intrudes on the other, the separation between them is so subtle that at first glance, you feel as though you are seeing one large penthouse apartment. This design is especially helpful during the phone conversations between George and Jennie, as well during the scene changes. But the final glowing touch to the entire production is Andrew Barnicle’s smooth and relaxed direction, including the actors’ blocking, the scene changes, and the pacing of the production. Whether it is the comedies by Neil Simon or critically acclaimed dramas at the Laguna Playhouse, Barnicle knows when to add his own imaginative touches to a scene, as well as when to simply trust his actors’ creative choices. Barnicle’s artistry is a true testament of his talents as a director. And with these “six characters,” Chapter Two will continue to be an entertaining crowd-pleaser, starting off 2013 with a bang.
Chapter Two opened January 8 and runs to February 3, 2013
606 Laguna Canyon Road
Laguna Beach, CA. 92651
Photos by Ed Krieger