BWW Review: Simon Says, Mason Directs A Sterling CHAPTER TWO
Everything falls into place in the romance that bubbles between the two wounded souls of Neil Simon's CHAPTER TWO. It's the getting there, though ~ to that place of uplift and self-renewal ~ that is the challenge, that invigorates the story, and that gives it relevance. Navigating the push and pull of the passage from grief (whether by divorce or death) to acceptance. Resolving one's anxieties about new commitments. Emerging (hopefully) self-assured and ready to seize the new day. It's Simon's masterfully crafted storytelling, garnished with wit and insight, that steers these characters through channels of euphoria and rough straits to their rendezvous with the settled seas of their shared destiny.
The essence of CHAPTER TWO is finding full and glowing expression in Arizona Theatre Company's opening production of its 51st Season. The show is directed by the marvelous Marsha Mason, whose whirlwind romance with the playwright inspired the play. It is graced with stellar performances by David Mason, Blair Baker, Ben Huber, and Diana Pappas. And it's framed by Lauren Helpern's jaw-dropping meticulous set that juxtaposes two distinctively different apartments from economically opposite sides of Manhattan.
As is the case with so much of Simon's work, the story line emerges from the pages of his life. In 1973, three months after Simon's first wife died of cancer, he met Ms. Mason. They had a whirlwind courtship. (They married that year and were divorced ten years later.) Simon's sense of guilt over falling in love so soon after his loss inspired the play, which he dedicated to Mason and for which she received an Academy Word nomination for Best Actress.
In CHAPTER TWO, Simon's alter ego, spy novelist George Schneider (David Mason), returns from a getaway to London that has done little to ease the pain of his wife's death. His brother Leo (Huber) is determined to beat back George's resistance to get on with his life and meet other women. After some failed encounters, Leo urges George to call Jennie Malone (Baker), an aspiring and recently divorced actress, who is likewise being coaxed by her best friend, Faye (Pappas), to take a chance on romance.
Neither George nor Jennie is ready to take the bait.
Until George mistakenly phones Jennie rather than an elderly librarian on his research list, both are sticking to their corners. In a succession of George's clumsy but endearing calls, the barriers to their meeting break down. It's pure Simon, loaded with humor and poignancy and delivered with gusto.
The chemistry between Mr. Mason and Ms. Baker is pitch perfect as they shift from reluctant dates to swooning lovers to newlyweds in crisis and an electrifying exchange of truths that tests their mettle and defines their relationship. In every instance, they capture the complexities and moods of their characters. They are at their best and most vital in the repartee that reveals their misgivings, aspirations, and vulnerability.
Ben Huber and Diana Pappas bring another level of energy and delight to the production. Their performances are superb. While their characters strive to make the George/Jennie match work, they're working on agendas of their own. Faye needs and must have a diversion from an unresponsive husband ~ that is, a tryst is in the making. Leo is...well, let us say, Leo is on the make.
So, Falling Into Place is the good news of CHAPTER TWO. At least, for the time being, George has found a nice girl to spend the rest of his life with. To what end and for how long is, of course, another story, the subject of Simon's chapter three.
CHAPTER TWO runs through October 22nd at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix.
Photo credit to Tim Fuller