A lot has changed since Neil Simon’s Chapter Two made its debut back in 1977, but the play’s core subject, spousal grief, hasn’t gone anywhere. When a spouse dies, the partner left behind must find a way to speak about the experience or face the possibility that the inevitable pain will linger and the longed-for healing will be delayed. For George Schneider (Todd Weeks), the Simon-surrogate protagonist of Chapter Two, the seeming solution, his newfound love for Jennie Malone (Caroline Kinsolving), paradoxically becomes part of the problem, effectively blocking this recently widowed man from dealing fully with the depths of his agonizing loss. In a contrasting subplot, Schneider’s brother Leo (Thomas Vincent Kelly) seeks solace in short-term affairs when his marriage begins to fall apart. Or should that cause and effect be stated the other way around? The fact that Leo pursues Faye Medwick (Heather Ayers), Jennie Malone’s best friend, helps the play reach its quota of awkwardly funny, unexpected encounters.
Director Andy Barnicle’s outstanding production will satisfy a wide range of holiday theatergoers. For those who want to relax and laugh, it’s got plenty of witty one-liners, and the predominantly comic performances by Kelly and Ayers are both superb. For the more pensive folks in the audience, the leads provide an unusual degree of emotional depth and a chance to meditate on what has been won and lost since the swinging Simon ’70s. The notion that the world revolves around rich-guy writers has become harder to take at face value circa 2016 — have any of these characters ever heard of white, male privilege? — but Weeks keeps George from leaking too much self-important gas. And Kinsolving achieves theatrical magic in the role of Jennie, conjuring a woman out of Simon’s words with whom one can fall in love. Her charismatic presence at the heart of Ensemble’s Chapter Two is the kind of happy holiday surprise we could all use at this time of year.