Directed by Jessica Thebus
Produced by the Windy City Playhouse
“Listen, George, next to Christmas, loneliness is the biggest business in America.”
Romantic Banter from a Master
Neil Simon fans have had a good autumn at Chicago theatres. Last month, Spartan Theatre Company performed his late career drama Jake’s Women in the Royal George’s upstairs space, and Step Up Productions performed his early career comedy Barefoot in the Park in the Athenaeum. Now the new Equity company Windy City Playhouse is performing his mid-career dramatic comedy Chapter Two in their lounge-like venue to close their inaugural season. Based Simon’s own courtship of Marsha Mason following the death of his first wife, Joan Baim, the play has been regarded as a transitional moment in his development as a writer, in which he focused more seriously on relationship drama. However, it is still filled with some of the best of his wit and humor, used in the service of a warm, but not condescending, story.
Two ex-lovers who have since married other people, Faye Medwick (Amy J. Carle) and Leo Schneider (Peter DeFaria), are playing matchmaker. Leo’s brother, George (Brian McCaskill), is in his early forties and recently widowed after a happy twelve-year long marriage. Faye’s friend and fellow actress Jennie Malone (Amy Rubenstein) is in her early thirties and recently divorced after a miserable six-year long marriage. Neither is particularly eager to start dating again, but Faye and Leo are having marital problems of their own, and after a chance encounter, decide George and Jennie would be a good couple to live vicariously through. The prospective couple initially have no interest in contacting each other, but George calls her accidently after Leo (possibly deliberately) mixes up some phone numbers and the two hit it off right away. George is a writer and sharp conversationalist, in contrast to Jennie’s ex-husband, who she says never challenged her intellectually. Jennie’s Midwestern upbringing and busy schedule as a successful actress have supplied her with the discipline George needs now in his life. They fall instantly in love, and announce their intention to marry after only knowing each other for two and a half weeks.
Faye and Leo are horrified. Their intention was to help their friends recover, but sudden, reckless obsession isn’t recovery. George and Jennie don’t see things that way, though, and set off on their honeymoon. Distraught with over own passionless marriages, Faye and Leo rekindle their affair, with unsatisfactory results. Meanwhile, George and Jennie have a lousy time in Barbados, and when they get back to New York, finally have a huge fight, in which George admits that being much further along in life and having seen a marriage through to death has given him much different desires from Jennie about what he wants from relationships.
Chapter Two is a character-driven drama, and Jessica Thebus has arranged an excellent cast. As Neil Simon’s self-insert, McCaskill possesses an appropriate awkward charm, and mixes wryness with vulnerability. Simon made a major point of how clever he/his character is, but his dialogue upholds his self-assessment, and McCaskill delivers it with natural ease. Rubenstein is similarly adept as George’s equally clever but less wise partner. Jennie, too, has a vast capacity for zingers and self-effacement, but lacking George’s maturity, and perhaps much lonelier without the memories of a good marriage to sustain her, keeps pushing to make their relationship work, no matter what anyone, including George tells her. Rubenstein captures that energy, and my only complaint is that both she and McCaskill rushed some of their more tense monologues on opening night. Carle and DeFaria have fun in the earthier roles Faye and Leo, who if anything, are even more realistic. Carle’s Faye is brassy, but a worrier, and probably the most confused character out of all of them. DeFaria’s Leo is much less collegiate than his older brother, which may be his put-on persona as a publicist, but is much more willing to show his heart, despite his linguistic skills being more concentrated than George’s in humor.
The play is firmly set at the time of its writing in 1977, and George makes a humorous reference to the Andrea Doria disaster twenty-one years earlier. But the rest of the humor is timeless, and Thebus is a talented director at guiding her actors through romantic intimacy as well as banter. Scott Davis’s split scene design, which shows both George and Jennie’s apartments, is filled with period-appropriate props by Jamie Karas, but clearly demonstrates both characters’ personalities and the conditions of their previous marriages to a contemporary audience. Leo provides costume designer Melissa Torchia with endless fun opportunities to explore the extremes of seventies fashion, but everybody has something quite visually impressive about them (I especially liked Jennie’s snakeskin shoes).
The Windy City Playhouse’s first season has been quite eclectic in subject matter, and it will be interesting to see how the venue continues to develop going into its equally diverse, but much more contemporary second season. Chapter Two, with its sympathetic focus on people working through realistic problems, is a good fit for this comfortable space, but don’t get complacent; Simon’s wit requires close attention. “Nothing is inevitable, dates are man-made,” Jennie says, and this is a fine place to go on one for people at any chapter in life. There’s a bit of artifice driving the play, and since Simon and Mason’s marriage ended in divorce despite their continued professional relationship, Chapter Two isn’t exactly a guidebook (George and Jennie are strikingly similar to Jake and Maggie in Jake’s Women, only more youthful in mindset). But as far as storytelling goes, this production is a true pleasure.
Reviewed October 31, 2015
This play has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see Chapter Two’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at the Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W Irving Park Road, Chicago. Tickets are $25-45; to order, call 773-891-8985 or visit windycityplayhouse.com. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, and Sundays alternating between 3:00 pm and 6:00 pm through December 20. Running time is two hours and twenty minutes, with one intermission.