The play may open with a brief moment from Steely Dan’s seventies hit Do It Again, but the recording isn’t there to establish a sense of time. Neil Simon’s comedy-drama, Chapter Two premiered in 1977 but the new Arizona Theatre Company production is not a seventies throwback. The song is there for the lyrics. If chapter one in your life is now over, then, as Donald Fagen sings, chapter two begins by going back and doing it again. Loss or personal tragedy may feel as though life has ground to a halt, but in reality those wheels really do keep going round and round.
In George Schneider’s case, the tragedy is the loss of his first wife, and he’s not coping well. George (David Mason) is a New York writer. He writes paperback spy novels, the kind you’d find displayed on bookshelves at airports, and he writes them under the pseudonym Kenneth Blakley-Hill. His publisher told him it would sound better if the author’s name was English. His well-meaning brother Leo (Ben Huber) is trying to help by pushing dates with women and getting George to answer or make some calls.
Then across town there’s recently divorced Jennie Malone (Blair Baker). She’s a New York actress who was once married to Gus the football player. She’s also single, but she’s handling things better than George. Jennie’s friend, Faye (Diana Pappas) happens to know George’s brother Leo, and between the two of them, maybe setting up a date between the divorced Jennie and the recently widowed George would be a good idea. If only George would make the call. But there’s a problem. After a European trip intended to help him escape the memory of his departed wife, George may be wheeling the one suitcase back from the airport, but he’s carrying an awful lot of left-over baggage besides the single wheelie.
When it opened in ‘77 with Judd Hirsch as George, Chapter Two was an enormous Broadway hit. The ‘79 movie didn’t fare so well; at least, not with the critics, and for two good reasons. First, James Caan as George never felt fully committed. He’s even on record as describing the film as “nothing,” which hardly indicates enthusiasm. Second, writer Simon has often said that when he writes he always thinks in terms of theatre, so even though he adapted his own work for the screen, it suffered from the problem that often plagues a play expanded to the movies; lengthy scenes of arguments, accusations and debates can’t always hold the attention in the way they do on stage. A film is a show-don’t-tell medium – odd when you consider they’re called the talkies – but a play, for the obvious logistical reason of not being able to show, is all about the telling, and in Neil Simon’s theatrical Chapter Two, there are riches to be found in that telling.
In the way Simon’s 1963 light-hearted comedy, Barefoot in the Park was said to be loosely based on the early days of his first marriage, fourteen years later, the writer drew on his second marriage to Marsha Mason for inspiration to Chapter Two. While not a literal telling of his story, Chapter Two is certainly semi-biographical, which is why the pain of loss and the sadness that follows feels so effectively real when seen through the prism of a writer who has truly experienced it, yet can express it in a way where the humor can always surface.
Mason, so good in many things but best remembered for her role in Simon’s original screenplay as The Goodbye Girl, is said to have turned down the role of Jennie on Broadway, understandably citing the potential difficulties of playing emotional scenes based on her own life night after night on stage. She did, however, play Jennie in the film, which is a different forum; once it’s in the can, it’s over. But all these years later, it’s Mason who has returned to ATC to direct this new production, and if there’s anyone with the experience and personal insight to flesh out Simon’s humor in the all-too real drama and have it done right, it has to be Marsha Mason. The end result from the casting, the set design, and the use of Steely Dan’s Do It Again is undeniably first class.
Simon’s script may have been of the seventies, but there’s nothing in it that truly reflects the time. In the way that The Graduate took place during the troublesome sixties, it existed in its own bubble; there was nothing of the outside world that sneaked in, and the piece could be remade today (though please, don’t) without adjusting much to make it seem of 2017. ATC’s Chapter Two is the same. With some tweaking here and there, a casual remark about HDTV and a VCR, cell phones, and the use of a laptop where a typewriter used to be, the play is easily transferred to present time. Only the absence of Caller ID on all the wireless land-lines is the giveaway. When Jennie’s ex calls and she answers, she’s surprised to hear the voice on Gus on the other end, and when both Jennie and Faye are about to leave the apartment and the phone is ringing, Faye remarks, “Oh, my God, maybe that’s George Schneider.” If the characters had Caller ID, as they would in 2017, maybe they’d know in advance who was on the other end.
Our emotional involvement is solely with George and Jennie. The two supports, Leo and Faye, deliver laughs, and they’re good ones, but they’re principally there for the required best-friend roles; two characters to whom the leads need to talk in order for us, the audience, to know what George and Jennie are thinking. Without them it would be phone calls and behavior without understanding motivations. This device becomes all too clear in the second half when, after an emotional confrontation between the two leads who leave each other on a disastrously sour note, we move to a lengthy though funny scene between Leo and Faye. It’s like a humorous interlude, required to break the tension before returning to George and Jennie. Without it, that second half would be far too heavy, and whatever humor surfaced among the drama, the weight of the human condition would be in constant danger of drowning it.
But despite Leo and Faye being a writer’s device, Simon skillfully makes them relevant. Faye’s character is hugely likable, and when Leo visits Jennie to tell her he’s concerned that maybe her oncoming marriage to George is coming on a little too early, it becomes an important scene. But the importance, and certainly the emotional kicker, is all Jennie’s. The look on her face as the muscles drop, the sound of her voice as the rhythm and tone changes, and the sadness in her eyes that becomes all too apparent, all adds to something quite genuine, and it’s Blair Baker’s authentic performance that makes it so. She makes you want to leap from your seat and give her a hug of assurance.
Ultimately, Chapter Two is still a comedy, and it’s the kind of comedy that isn’t written today. But it’s a Neil Simon comedy, and that means it’s a world populated by real characters who just happen to speak with a quick-fire wit full of zingers and recognizable relevance, ones that we wish we could all quote if we could think of them fast enough. When having left a drip running in his bathroom with the window open in February for a couple of weeks, Leo tells his brother there are now icicles hanging everywhere. “It looks like the john in Dr. Zhivago,” he declares. Isn’t that something we all wish we could deliver on the spot? Our real-life exchanges would be much more fun.
Pictures Courtesy of Tim Fuller
ATC’s Chapter Two continues at the Herberger Theater Center until October 22