Love may indeed be lovelier the second time around. But fully embracing a new relationship after the loss of a beloved spouse is more often territory studded with emotional minefields.
Or so it was for Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Neil Simon, who wed actress Marsha Mason after losing his adored wife Joan to cancer, then shared a version of that experience in his play Chapter Two.
The 1977 play, now being revived at Manalapan’s Plaza Theatre, merges the earlier laugh-a-minute Simon style with the deeper playwright, the artist who later gave us the autobiographically inspired trilogy Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound. Chapter Two is a little stylistically schizophrenic in that regard, but director Michael Leeds and his sharp four-person cast keep the pendulum swinging, from sorrow to silliness, from the surge of love to the complexities of unfinished emotional business.
Wayne LeGette plays George Scheider, a writer whose retracing of his honeymoon trip through Europe has only deepened his mourning. His elegant Central Park West apartment is a monument to his late wife, its focal point a huge portrait of her pretty, smiling face. (A side note: The woman in the picture is actress Stacy Schwartz, LeGette’s former wife and good friend. She, happily, is very much alive. But that bit of set design seems a little odd.)
George is comforted and encouraged by Leo (Kenneth Kay), his press-agent brother, a classic Simon jokester and philanderer who seems to be the bad boy more out of habit than real desire. Leo keeps trying to set George up, get him back on the dating horse, with mostly failed results. Until Jennie.
Jennie Malone (Mia Matthews) is a soap opera actress trying to move on from her failed marriage to a football player. Her actress pal Faye (Kim Cozort) wants Jennie to get out of her ‘70s-hipster apartment and back in the game, but Jennie isn’t terribly interested. Until George.
Watching Chapter Two is almost like watching two plays that unfold simultaneously. LeGette and Matthews have plenty of funny lines and handle them well, but theirs is the more serious play: a cute “accidental” meeting over the phone, a head-over-heels romance, an o’er hasty marriage and a painful reality check. The actors have a believable chemistry, and late in the play, LeGette fully commits to George’s startling, unsettling cruelty.
Kay and Cozort, husband and wife in real life, supply the laughs that are early-vintage Simon’s stock in trade. Inevitably, Leo and Faye have an assignation, and the actors’ way with farce pleasurably squeezes every last laugh out of that scene.
The Plaza Theatre, which has brought the former Florida Stage space in Manalapan back to theatrical life, has just announced an ambitious 2013-2014 season of three musicals and a solo show featuring movie, TV and theater veteran Renee Taylor. With each production, the theater is raising its game, and so it is with the Chapter Two team -- director Leeds, the actors, set designer Michael McClain, lighting designer Glen Rovinelli and costume designer Jerry Sturdefant. Chapter Two isn’t in the first tier of Simon’s many plays, but at the Plaza, it is getting a solidly entertaining production.