By Mary Johnson, Special to The Baltimore Sun
5:50 PM EST, February 25, 2012
Announcing a run of Neil Simon's "Chapter Two" through March 3, Colonial Players' February newsletter points out that 51/2 years have elapsed since its last staging of a Simon play.
Memories of the company's October 2006 production of "Jake's Women" make us wonder why it's taken so long for a Simon play to reappear at this venue, where audiences can share the life experiences of eminently recognizable characters created by the contemporary stage's most successful playwright.
Well established in a 20-year writing career by 1973, Simon dealt early that year with the loss of Joan Baim, his wife of 20 years, Later that year, he met and married actress Marsha Mason. This semi-autobiographical play has real human characters armed with humor to deal with painful emotions to create a poignant comedy that remains vitally alive to contemporary audiences.
The plot concerns novelist George Schneider, who is coping with the recent death of his wife of 10 years. His concerned press agent and brother, Leo, encourages George to re-engage in life by dating a string of women, including one recently divorced actress, Jennie. She is a close friend of Faye, an acquaintance of married womanizer Leo.
Reluctant to start dating, George and Jennie become curious about each other after George's comic phone attempts to connect them. After exchanging much witty dialogue, George and Jennie rush into marriage and later sort out a series of problems after their honeymoon. Having advised caution on rushing into marriage, Leo and Faye support the couple while creating problems of their own.
CP's "Chapter Two" production is directed by Gwen Morton, who was drawn to this comedy dealing with very serious issues and wanted to move it from the 1970s to contemporary New York.
In her director's notes, Morton says, "I chose to set this production in the present to emphasize the universality of the characters."
Professional interior designer and versatile CP volunteer Edd Miller serves as set designer, creating side-by-side upscale contemporary NYC apartments in a divided set that works well and looks fantastic.
Colonial Players again benefits from the carpentry skills of Dick Whaley, who was recently announced as the 2012 recipient of the Robert E. Gard Superior Volunteer National Award presented by the American Association of Community Theatres.
Heading CP's four-person cast, Richard McGraw seems destined to play George, conveying his difficulties accepting his wife's premature death, his reluctance to venture into dating and his bemused astonishment at discovering lively rapport with Jennie. Whether relating to Leo or Jennie, McGraw's George credibly conveys subtly restrained, divergent attitudes while flawlessly punctuating his every comic line.
As Jennie, recently divorced from a New York Giants wide receiver and ill-prepared for a new romance, Jo Sullivan makes a memorable CP debut. She gives a multifaceted portrayal of a strong contemporary woman, who in her initial phone conversation with George matches him barb after perfectly timed barb in a challenging series. Later, Sullivan's Jennie reveals the emotional depth of her attachment to George, whose love for his dead wife nearly destroys their honeymoon.
As Leo, Jeff Sprague adds another strong performance to a growing list, here creating a success-driven, amoral character eager to savor life's pleasures unrestrained while encouraging his brother's restraint. Sprague's Leo relates well to McGraw's George and to ambivalent girlfriend Faye, deftly delivering his comic lines.
In her first full-length CP production, Laura Ivey conveys Faye's warm friendship for Jennie and a gamut of feelings ranging from insecurity to annoyance to nervous encouragement of would-be lover Leo, whose constant womanizing matters as little to her as consummation of their fledgling affair.
CP's production of "Chapter Two" works splendidly on all counts. Just as Verdi's "La Traviata" can be updated to gain relevance to our era, so too can Simon's master work be adapted by the addition of references to reality TV, Dr. Oz, and Charlie Sheen to gain timeliness while remaining distinctly alive with unique characters expressing a humor born of misfortune.
After posing for a group photo, McGraw shared his belief that Neil Simon is perhaps America's Shakespeare. "For generations in the distant future, Neil Simon's plays will be referred to as a source into the plight of the human condition as we know it in the 20th century," he said. "Much as Shakespeare defines Elizabethan culture, so does Simon express how humor helps us navigate our emotions."
Patrons can order tickets by calling Colonial Players Box Office 410-268-7373 for any weekend performance Thursday through Sunday until March 3.
Coming up in Arundel: Celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of "Jazz Samba," the album by legendary Annapolis jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd. At 49 West at 7 p.m. Sunday March 4, Nate Nagar will play Charlie's own guitar, with Chuck Redd (a 19-year veteran of Byrd's trio) on drums and vibes, and Tommy Cecil on bass. Reservations: 410-269-0777 or email email@example.com
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