Neil Simon, one of America’s most prolific and successful playwrights, has all but disappeared from the radar screens of patrons, and from the stages of professional and regional theatres across the country. Simon like other playwrights of his generation over the last fifteen years, have been caught in the crossfire of changing audience demographics.
The Millennial Generation, roughly individuals 18 and 29 and those 30 to 40, are now the ages producers hope to woo into becoming regular theatre-goers. So far, that age demographic has resisted the siren call. They’re too busy staring into their hands and the screens of their ubiquitous I-Phones. It’s a bit of a pity too, because they’re missing out on some pretty relevant and entertaining live theatre performances. The last time I checked “love” was still the key word that motivates all human behavior – and that would include the raging hormones, culture-resistant, younger set.
The North Coast Repertory Theatre is doing its part in getting the message out to their subscribers and patrons in general, that Neil Simon is not only alive and doing well, but is still very relevant to audiences of all ages. “Chapter Two”, Simon’s “autobiographical” play is based on events from his own life journey.
The charming story set in New York City, revolves around the recently widowed George Schneider (warmly and winningly played by playhouse Artistic Director David Ellenstein and his cross-town neighbor, the recently divorced Jennie MacLaine (a lovely Jacquelyn Ritz). Neither of these bruised souls is eager to enter the dating wars that are being cooked up and choreographed by others who think they’re doing the right thing being matchmakers. With George, it’s his brother Leo (terrifically played Louis Lotorto), and with Jennie, it’s her Texas-accented, ditzy friend Faye (played by (Mhari Sandoval).
Their journey of meeting, dating and forming a relationship is chock full of, now classic, Neil Simon dialogue and comedy situations. Simon is a master of the plot and sentence-ending zinger. He sends his comedic dialogue probes into the heart of the harried lives of middle-class urban America, and like Rumplestiltskin spins those narrative threads into gold.
Very few actors can direct themselves – the job is way too difficult and complicated just directing others – so it’s a wise choice by Actor Ellenstein to share co-directorship of this wonderfully entertaining play with Christopher Williams.
What makes this Simon gem so winning is the splendid ensemble performers. Ritz as Jennie, is very fetching and appealing as George’s new, about-to-become the second love of his life. She is one very cool lady who knows how to control her emotions in those give and takes scenes with Ellenstein (her NFL playing ex-husband Gus, must have been a real jerk to let her get away). Lotorto’s libidinous Leo, is a study on how to play an unfaithful husband and loyal wisecracking brother, yet still have the audience love you as a character. And the same goes for Jennie’s kooky friend Faye as played by Sandoval. She may like her cocktails a lot, but her loyalty to Jennie is never in question. It’s a charming comedy for grown-ups that will resonates with many in the audience.
The clever and creative directorial touches of co-director Williams – during all of George’s scenes – allows Ellenstein to deliver a winning and finely nuanced performance as George. The on-stage chemistry between George and Jennie becomes just the icing on this snappy comedy cake.
In the technical department, it’s difficult to find a better set designer and lighting designer team that go together like ham and eggs, than Marty Burnett and Matt Novotny, respectively. Burnett’s set features two apartments side by side, precisely lighted, so no light bleeds into the other apartment, yet gives all the light needed to see and appreciate the playing areas, as well as the costumes of Alina Bokovikova.
“Chapter Two” is a delightful production that performs at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, CA, through March 29, 2015.