I still say that Marvin Neil Simon — the only living playwright with a Broadway theater named after him (in 1983) — is a criminally overrated craftsman, whose claims to fame feature a host of underexposed characters, a litany of one-liners disguised as plot points and a legion of central figures drawn from back to front. Most of his 33 plays consist of interchangeable stories and the tired escapist gags that pepper them, mined from his days in early television; one yarn making the rounds is that he used to write a play a year whether he had an idea for it or not.
But know what else? Rules are made by their exceptions, as witnessed with North Coast Repertory Theatre’s current Chapter Two. This one bears some telltale Simon missteps, but the playwright somehow gets out of his way long enough to write the kind of subtext that supports the story. Christopher Williams and co-director David Ellenstein seize on a brandable tech effort and one terrific performance to boot — meanwhile, and dast I say it: This actually isn’t half-bad Simon such as New York settings go. It’s a rare testament that clearly identifies the playwright as a man of far deeper constitution than he usually lets on.
If you don’t believe me, just ask the play’s autobiographical George Schneider, a recent widower whose unhappily married gadabout brother Leo pushes George to get back into the dating game. After a glut of false starts, Leo’s friend Jennie Malone enters the picture; she’s an outstanding catch, but she’s also riddled with emotional drawbacks of her own amid her divorce from a star football player.
Both characters’ hesitancy (fueled by their status as middle-agers) sparks a heated dialogue about letting go, especially as things pertain to George, still distraught over the loss of his wife. The two marry in due course, but that’s no guarantee that Jennie will relinquish her command for self-respect.
Simon is usually too busy polishing his gags to reveal much about his characters — accordingly, maybe he’ll someday be good enough to give us the depth of George’s experience as a professional author, which would lend the character some more credibility. Ditto for Jennie, a soap opera actor equally bereft of a resume. I found brother Leo (Louis Lotorto) and Jennie’s best friend Faye (Mhari Sandoval) more interestingly drawn — in the first place, they have a sort-of affair neither of them wants, and their dialogue is cadenced and spirited.
Still, there are some sparks of vision here, with Simon the occasionally eloquent spokesman for the universal theme of love and loss. “Go ahead and test me,” Jennie eventually chides. “If you want to leave, leave. But I‘m not the one who’s going to walk away… If you’re stupid enough to throw someone sensational like me aside, then you don’t deserve as good as you got.” It’s a lovely speech from actor Jacquelyn Ritz, who leaves Ellenstein’s beleaguered George tongue-tied amid the profound lesson within. And it’s a cinch Jennie has the show’s better lines (“Just watching the telephone,” she says as she takes a call from George near the end of the piece; “nothing good on until now”).
The Leo-Faye chemistry supports that of the principals awfully well. Sandoval is fantastic amid Faye’s melodramatic voice and wholesale narcissism, and Lotorto makes it clear that Leo, even in middle age, never really sowed his oats. Costumer Alina Bokovikova’s good fare is an absolute success in Leo’s case — he’s the only one on earth who wouldn’t think twice about wearing that horrible suit. Marty Burnett’s sets and Chris Luessmann’s sound tell their own tales by themselves (and that’s a good thing).
This play, from 1977, was reportedly written as a tribute to Marsha Mason, Simon’s second wife, who played a major role in the playwright’s recovery from the anguish amid his first wife’s death. For all his many, many colossal faults, Simon does chart a certain courage of conviction in his autobiographical material (his Brighton Beach Memoirs, in fact, is a very good first installment in the coming-of-age trilogy on character Eugene Jerome). At 87, his work (such as it is) may be done — but with Chapter Two, we can rest easy knowing that not all of it was for naught.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Feb. 28. Chapter Two runs through March 29 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach. $41-$48. 858-481-1055, northcoastrep.org.