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Theatre review

Coupling & grieving: Neil Simon’s 'Chapter Two' at ATC

The marketing narrative of Neil Simon’s “Chapter Two”, which just opened Arizona Theatre Company’s new season and which the playwright has always presented as a retelling of his courtship of his second (now ex-) wife, the actress Marsha Mason, has recently entered a new phase.

Mason — who starred in the 1979 movie version of the 1977 play, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award — has begun directing the play, first at the Bucks County (Pa.) Playhouse in 2014 and now here in Tucson, where her participation in the project headlines our regional theatre’s promotional strategy.

I presume Mason’s involvement has energized the selling of the local production and perhaps ATC’s season tickets, both good things in general for our theatrical community, but, unfortunately, I do not feel that her direction has induced an authentically informed and particularly compelling performance of the play.

Contradictory impulses

“Chapter Two,” written during the second, “serious-comedy,” stage of Simon’s long and remarkably successful career, traces the first three weeks of a passionate but problematic romance: only a few months after the death of his beloved wife, George (David Mason), a novelist in his early 40s, has fallen in love with, is about to marry, Jennie (Blair Baker), a recently divorced actress in her early 30s.

Triggered by Simon’s own experience of being devastatingly widowed and then precipitously remarried, the play is about the contradictory impulses of grieving (holding on while letting go—“You can’t get to the present without going through the past,” as George poignantly puts it) and coupling. “I think everything starts with two people,” Simon remarked in a TV interview; but, as George’s brother, Leo, laments in the play, “The trouble with marriage is that it’s relentless.”

Like most of Simon’s comedies, this is also a play about New York City (and thus, in its various senses, urbanity), about domesticity (and thus, by extension, different notions of interiority), and about the comic scrutiny of ordinary life, a quotidian existence lived, as life usually is in the theater, primarily through language.

Disparate spaces

The sometimes bewildering interconnectedness of all these themes is indicated and traversed on the stage by the play’s intricate multi-level set, which, as realized for ATC by scenic designer Lauren Helpern, contains two somewhat overlapping apartments (supposedly located “on opposite sides” of the city) topped by a stylized Manhattan skyline in cut-out silhouette.

What initially (and later) connects these two disparate living spaces — the one his, “traditional, comfortable,” and, at first at least, lit to be dark and depressed, the other hers, “modern, bright, attractive, and cheerful, . . . because she is” (I’m quoting here from the script’s stage directions) — is, as is often the case in a Neil Simon comedy, the telephone, the quintessential 20th-century instrument of interpersonal communication.

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George and Jennie’s “meet-cute” is conducted entirely on the phone, a series of bumbling, apologetic, mistaken-identity calls mutating rapidly and humorously into self-conscious, “charming" “repartee” and culminating in an actual, five-minute “hello and goodbye” date.

The phone also figures significantly in a variety of other plot points, not only for the main characters but also for Leo (Ben Huber) and for Jennie’s friend, Faye (Diana Pappas), all of whom use the phone to move in and out, around and through various intimate relationships.

Meaningless devices

And here is my first quibble with ATC’s production and Mason’s direction of “Chapter Two.” The play is set in the 1970s, not in any profoundly socio-historic sense that needs to be scrupulously preserved but also not in a way that feels even remotely unplayable in Tucson in 2017.

So why, unlike in the script and the original production, do the apartments have both landline handsets (anachronistically wireless) and the actors their own cell phones (not yet invented)? This duplication and digitalization of devices is narratively meaningless (the whole play takes place in the two apartments) and, in fact, occasionally undercuts plot strategy (why, if everybody has a cell phone, does George leave his shrink the number of the judge’s chambers or why does Leo call a panicked Faye on Jennie’s apartment phone or why certain other rather elaborate Act Two plans to arrange phone calls on landlines?).

I suspect it’s because Mason and ATC feel, as do so many contemporary theatrical directors and producer/presenters, that they must try anything they can (within the legal guidelines and ethical and aesthetic proprieties that govern such decisions) to update (and, in some instances, though not here, to politically correct) their older plays for the younger (and “diverse”) audiences they are all trying so hard to attract.

Atavistic traces

But, as I’ve already indicated, “Chapter Two” neither requires nor benefits from such (post)modernizing.

The digital phones, as well as the laptop on George’s desk—which are, besides an equally gratuitous reference to “HDTV and DVR” near the top of Act 1, the production’s only readily apparent efforts to update things — merely come across as distracting anachronisms revealing a certain lack of faith in the play’s continuing relevance.

Indeed, I would go on to claim, somewhat contentiously, that these out-of-time-and-place props are nothing but the atavistic traces of unnecessary good intentions, unnecessary and even counter-productive, because, as you’ve seen, they’ve lead this reviewer (an AARP-card-carrying member of the “overwhelmingly white and older” audience that David Ivers, ATC’s new artistic director, indicated, in a recent interview reprinted in the program, needs to be “diversified”) out of rather than into the play.

There is somewhere in all this, I’ll hazard to say, an object lesson in the problems of keeping the (hard-won) audience you’ve already got as you seek to develop the audience you haven’t yet found.

Unadventurous designs

But, aside from the cleverly conceived set and those distracting digital devices, “Chapter Two” and this production of it are unadventurously designed because, as is typical in Simon, actions and intentions are propelled primarily by the play’s urbanely domestic, self-consciously witty repartee.

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Thus Helpern’s scenic design follows Simon’s stage directions rather closely, although, as I’ve noted, the stylized and silhouetted skyline is a nice addition. David Lee Cuthbert’s lighting design is functional, dimming and brightening when needed, but seldom asked to create atmosphere or comment on the action. Brian Jerome Patterson’s sound design begins with a Latin beat and the noise of city traffic (never repeated), then uses various instrumental riffs (e.g., something bluesy, “Misty”) at the ends of scenes to lightly indicate mood.

Kish Finnegan’s costume design puts George in appropriately conservative suits and sportswear, Leo in not-quite-brash-enough clothes for a theatrical publicist, and the women, especially Jennie, in an eclectic melange of rather unattractive outfits (Jennie’s striped culottes at the top of Act 2 are almost disturbing).

Mason’s blocking is crisply and cleanly comic (although the rise in the “glued to this spot” beat near the end of Act 2 seems awkward), but the pacing is a bit slow in places, especially at the beginning of the play, a problem exacerbated if not indeed caused by the casting.

Coupling and grieving

I assume Mason had a significant say in the casting, as apparently did Geoff Josselson, “a New York-based casting director,” who is listed as part of the production’s “creative team.” In any event, they both should know better.

Now, to be fair, Pappas as Faye and Huber as Leo seem like they belong in a serious Neil Simon comedy. They both zip through New York minutes brashly and comfortably, their scenes together have energy and sparkle, they add something, individually and collectively, to the script’s repartee.

On the other hand, Baker as Jennie and David Mason as George, while highly competent veteran performers, seem somewhat miscast.

Mason looks the part and does the depression fairly well, but he doesn’t sound like he’s from New York City, he never seems as cleverly bookish as this successful novelist should be, and he never quite finds his way out of the melancholic register his character has to learn to escape.

Baker could be from Cleveland, all right, but, curiously (for an actress), she doesn’t seem very actressy, and, crucially, she just doesn’t come across as effervescently witty and charming, capable of light banter with a stranger over the phone or of being so sure of her own charismatic personality and independent judgement that she can leap into a marriage with this previously almost inconsolable widower after just three weeks.

And because Baker is not, it seems to me, a natural and comfortable romantic-comedy actress, she and Mason never quite connect, never quite manage to “talk” (as Jennie observes they are already doing by the end of the meet-cute phone calls) “in the same rhythm,” never convince us that they are an imitable example (as Simon claims in his memoirs audience members would tell him over the years) of how to cope with such loss, of how a romantic readiness to believe in coupling can ameliorate the despair of grieving (not exactly, a cynic might observe, one of Kubler-Ross’s five stages).

Simon transcendent

I’ll conclude by professing my faith in Neil Simon’s greatness. He is surely the most important (as he is certainly the most performed) writer of dramatic comedy in American theatre history and thus a transcendent figure in global performance culture.

“The Odd Couple” and “The Sunshine Boys” are beautifully constructed and articulated comic masterpieces, as good in their way as anything by Jonson, Moliere, Sheridan, Goldoni, Goldsmith, or Coward (whose timely praise of Simon’s first play helped launch his career), although, like everything else, not comparable to the comedies of Shakespeare and Shaw.

“Rumors” is as playable (if not quite as elaborately intricate) a farce as Feydeau’s “A Flea in his Ear” or Frayn’s “Noises Off,” and many of Simon's other plays—notably, the serio-comic Brighton Beach trilogy and “Lost in Yonkers”—have their fervent champions.

I have a special feeling for “Plaza Suite,” in which I acted a million years ago: the third act, in particular, is a physical and verbal tour de force of escalating familial frustration.

Now, as has often been pointed out by critics and scholars, Simon is not an adventurous theatrical explorer. His plays are almost always familiarly realistic: he seldom deconstructs the cultural attitudes and theatrical conventions of the characters and situations, narrative structures and set designs, identity formations and speech acts through which theatrical performance in general and his plays in particular are constructed and expressed.

So he’s not — in an academic setting, let us say — a particularly instructive modernist or postmodernist exemplar. But he is the perfect instance of what he is: a traditionally realistic, immensely popular, comically urbane, resolutely American dramatist, who, appropriately enough, is still the only playwright to have received the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor (as well as three Tonys and a Pulitzer).

“Chapter Two” is not, to my mind, among the best of his plays, but it deserves a better realization than this one, especially from an accomplished regional theatre with so many resources and from a director so intimately connected to the play and the playwright.

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Tim Fuller/ATC

Blair Baker and David Mason in Arizona Theatre Company’s 'Chapter Two.'

What, when & where

  • Neil Simon's “Chapter Two," directed by Marsha Mason
  • Arizona Theatre Company, Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.
  • Through September 30
  • Tickets: $41-63