Before Sex and the City, before Seinfeld, and before Friends, New York had Neil Simon, the original bard of single life in the big city. With the possible exception of his cinematic contemporary Woody Allen, no one did as much as Simon to make the New York sense of humor a national mainstay; his influence lives on in film, television, and on the stage, where Simon’s disciples are myriad and far-flung. Like a Central Park West version of Tom Joad, Simon’s tone is everywhere. Wherever people spout self-deprecating one-liners, Simon is there; whenever a relative ribs a mensch about his lack of a love life, Simon is there; and whenever a wounded character seduces his foil with a witty comeback, well, Simon is there, too.
Starting this week, Simon’s 1977 play Chapter Two will be at Ensemble Theatre Company’s New Vic until December 18. It was a breakthrough play for the writer, who used it to tap into an autobiographical vein of material that would lead him to the triumph of the Eugene trilogy that began with the hit Brighton Beach Memoirs in 1983. Chapter Two draws on the sense of hope and redemption that Simon found with his second wife, actress Marsha Mason, after the death of his first wife, dancer Joan Baim, in 1973. Speaking with director Andrew Barnicle, whose production of Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels was such a hit at the New Vic last season, I learned that, according to Simon’s autobiography, the playwright was so moved by the first read-through that he broke down in a fit of emotional catharsis.
To dwell too much on the weight of mortality in Chapter Two would, however, be a mistake. This is, after all, Neil Simon we are talking about. The protagonist, George Schneider, who will be played by Todd Weeks, writes popular fiction under a British pen name and has become, like his creator, a widower at the relatively young age of 42. Wisecracking brother Leo (Thomas Vincent Kelly) meets George at his mournfully cold and empty Central Park West apartment upon the writer’s return from a grief-stricken trip to Europe. The brother’s suggestion? Dial the phone number of Jennie (Caroline Kinsolving), an actress he thinks George might like. Meanwhile, on the Upper East Side, Faye (Heather Ayers) sets about consoling her friend Jennie, recently divorced from a professional football player, with some neatly complementary advice: Why not check out George?
Of course, she’s not ready to date, and neither is he, but through some remarkable coincidences and a lot of very clever repartee, the two become one. Director Barnicle describes his deft approach to the material as similar to the way he went after the Coward script, saying, “I go at it like a Chekhov play. You have to find the human beings first through the language and then let that reality bring the laughter.” With some slight tweaking of the original script’s time frame — a matter of weeks, not months — this production will set it firmly within the penumbra of the winter holidays, making it a perfect December diversion for theatergoers in search of a sophisticated antidote to other, more treacly traditional offerings.
For tickets and information, visit etcsb.org or call (805) 965-5400.