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Chapter Two — Bucks County Playhouse

joeyslotnick_michaelnathanson2Summoned by the actors she directed in “Chapter Two,” Marsha Mason approached the stage applauding and in tears.

Those tears were of delight and gratitude, as the Bucks County Playhouse cast made Neil Simon’s 1977 play about a widower and a divorcee embarking on a second marriage seem fresh and poignant.

Mason’s meticulous and moving production was especially well served by lead actress Anastasia Griffith who has the daunting task of playing a character modelled after Marsha Mason in a piece that earned Mason a 1979 Oscar nomination and now was being directed by Marsha Mason.

Talk about a cause for anxiety or self-consciousness! The person you’re playing is Simon’s version of the director you have to please!

I may be ascribing emotions to Griffith the actress never had.

It doesn’t make a difference whether she had them or not. On stage, as Jennie Malone, Griffith was extraordinary. Her Jennie is self-possessed and secure in her worth as a human being and an actress. She endured one marriage with a man who seemed unwilling to grow up or become a partner. She is not looking for a second husband. She is content to travel a bit and then return to work as a New York actress who has a running part in a CBS soap opera.

Then the telephone rings. It’s a wrong number. Well, partially a wrong number. A widowed novelist, George Schneider, is seeking someone who can give him first-hand background for a book he’s writing. He has written his source’s telephone number on the same paper on which his brother, Leo, thinking it’s would be a good idea for George to date, scribbled Jennie’s number. Leo met Jennie and her friend, Faye, at a club and thought she might be a woman George would find attractive.

In conversation, he does. The repartee from the first wrong-number call leads to four others, each one increasing in charm and drawing out more personal information. Voice-to-voice, George and Jennie click. George recommends they meet face-to-face to see how that works.

“Chapter Two” is a play based on fact, so romance ensues. Mason and company act out that romance with piercing intelligence. Beyond the funny lines Simon amply supplies, and the neuroses he assigns Faye and Leo, the playwright lets you hear and understand the concerns of two people who fall in love way before either of them thought they would.

Both George and Jennie are recovering from their first marriages. George’s wife dies after a bout with cancer she kept hidden from others for a time. His grief takes palpable form. He becomes a hermit in his apartment for several weeks, writing nothing, a serious sign of depression if you know anything about writers, eating little, and remaining unshaven and disheveled. Leo tries to pull him from his torpor, but George is inconsolable.

Then, one day, he gets washed and dressed and takes off for a month in Europe. When he arrives home, he is ready to face publishers and deadlines, and Leo thinks he should consider dating. He lines up women for George to have dinner or attend Knicks games with, but none of them meet George’s standards. From their description, they might meet no one’s standards.

Jennie slogged through a marriage that was going nowhere with a failed NFL player who could not conceive of life after the gridiron, something it would behoove him to consider since his career with the Giants lasted parts of two seasons. She is as choosy about men as George is about women. Just as Leo, a compulsive romancer, cannot understand how George could be so tied to the memory of his late wife he is barely interested in meeting someone new, Faye is perplexed about Jennie’s reluctance to jump into the Manhattan fray and have a ball as a carefree divorcee. Faye is particularly miffed at Jennie’s indifference towards dating because she is saddled in an unhappy marriage and longs for nothing more than to have an extra-marital affair.

Simon makes all of this clear, and he uses the old-fashioned route of good dialogue and well paced exposition to do it. Griffith and Joey Slotnick, as George, make the feelings their characters must overcome even more touching by portraying in a way that makes the audience respond favorably to them and root for a relationship that looks so right. George and Jennie may not be prepared to pursue what’s next romantically in their lives, but fate has taken being ready out of the equation by putting Simon’s leads in each other’s way.

Griffith and Slotnick let you see what goes on in their characters’ minds even as you ache for them to unite as a couple. Contrasted with Leo and Faye, George and Jennie are pillars of reason, and Griffith and Slotnick are savvy about conveying what sets them apart.

Both are witty, but to Griffith and Slotnick’s credit, neither actor plays Simon’s jokes as one-liners. Instead, they unleash them as clever people who express themselves in ways that employ humor as a natural part of their conversation. Simon’s lines get laughs, but they come from Griffith and Slotnick’s talent for peppering their talk with funny reactions and metaphors. The characters don’t come across as comedians. They register as smart and as people whose immediate thoughts include humor, sometimes to self-consciously amuse, sometimes to soften a statement or leaven a situation, and sometimes to mask emotions. Whatever the circumstance, Griffith and Slotnick don’t play for laughs. They remain natural and let the comedy happen.

This is important because the actors establish George and Jennie as rational people who have a knack for comic expression. The solidity of the characters makes you care about them, makes you see them as complete human beings rather than as ciphers or as jukeboxes that dispense one-liners. The actors, particularly Griffith, are so affecting because they make all they do and all that worries them seen so adult and so real.

Anastasia Griffith radiates poise and common sense as Jennie. Faye says Jennie is the most organized person in the world, and Griffith proves it by going about Jennie’s business with great and effortless efficiency.

The same clarity that allows Jennie to put her apartment in order helps Jennie to put her life in perspective. She has analyzed what went wrong in her marriage and the emotions that took her so long to extract herself from it. She has a sense of who she is and her purpose. Jennie doesn’t want to enter into a relationship that might be superficial or a romance that might be kindled more by a man’s good looks or taste in clothes than in his long-term behavior and his attitude towards women.

Griffith establishes Jennie’s independence and intelligence early. She also conveys a no-nonsense quality that carries over to her talks with Faye and the first telephone call she receives from George.

Griffith’s approach makes Jennie an admirable woman, one who is truly is too good to settle for just any man or to be unappreciated and pigeonholed based on a man’s idea of her. When Griffith delivers a speech that lets George know she will tolerate his fears but not tolerate any sniping, carping, or mistreatment, you back her up because Griffith has made her the upstanding person Neil Simon designed her to be.

Mason’s entire cast brings out the facets and genuine nature of their characters.

Joey Slotnick brings out the honesty in George. If Griffith’s Jennie is self-possessed, Slotnick’s George is self-knowing. He is an author who has examined his life as if he is living it in third person. Even as he acts and feels, George gives the sense he is looking at himself from an authorial distance.

This adds to his charm and makes him a tad self-conscience. Slotnick is adept at playing George’s shyer, less confident side. In his first meeting with Jennie, George reveals that maturity has not cured him from being nervous around women and cautious about asking for a date or anything else he might want. He is aware he is not the best looking of men but makes up for it by being one of the most entertaining and one of the most sensitive.

George’s marriage was 12 years of bliss for him. He and his late wife did everything together, and she knew how to deal with any moodiness or writer’s angst George may have. When we meet George, he is not only mourning a woman but a lifestyle and an existence that was happy and content. Jane cannot be replaced. Other women may follow. George is too young to remain unattached if and when he is ready to seek a partner. Another woman has to understand Jane will be remain his first affection, and he will be loyal to that love even when it is a distant memory.

Slotnick conveys all of this. His conversations with Leo, especially when he is describing the floozies or homebodies Leo has suggested he date, are sincere, just as his initial talks with Jennie clearly state George is a man in the midst of grieving, not someone who has recovered from his loss and is ready to rebound.

You can see Slotnick’s surprise as George realizes he may need to be with Jennie whether the timing for a new relationship is good or not. Slotnick also makes the scenes in which George faces his doubts and regrets by turning mean and verbally abusive real and understandable, so that you sympathize a bit with George while empathizing with and feeling concern for Jennie.

Nadia Bowers and Michael Nathanson are excellent friends and foils as Faye and Leo, two people who seek affection and sex in a way far different from the kind George and Jennie are experiencing.

Faye admires Jennie’s orderliness. She too is an actress on a CBS soap, but her life doesn’t have the precision Jennie’s does.

Faye has a husband she wishes she could leave. She doesn’t have Jennie’s nerve or resolve. In spite of that, she asks if she can have access to Jennie’s apartment when Jennie moves in with George, and her intention is to bring lovers there.

Unfortunately, Faye is as inept at wooing as she is in maintaining a marriage. She does have an affair, one that Simon turns sweet and comic, but Faye cannot face life directly the way Jennie can.

Nadia Bowers is a likeable Faye whose dilemmas are endearing. You feel for her marital plight while realizing she is too scattered and insecure to have more than a series of one-night stands. She is the age and type and man looks at for quick fun. Faye has a heart, but she doesn’t convey the substance Jennie does. The speech in which she speaks about her feelings and her inability to change what upsets her is quite moving, and Bowers rivets as she delivers it.

Michael Nathanson’s Leo provides most of Simon’s comic relief, and Nathanson is the one member of the cast who acts as if he’s playing comedy instead of being in situations that have a comic tone.

That doesn’t keep his performance from being excellent.  Leo, a theatrical agent, is the wilder, less thoughtful younger brother in the Schneider family. He wants feet in two worlds, the suburban one that includes his wife and children, and the big city where he can act on his compulsion to have sex on a nightly basis with whatever woman is willing to succumb.

Nathanson is earnest in the scenes in which Leo serves as George’s sounding board. He sincerely desires George to return to a wider world and cope with the fact that Jane can never return. He also serves as a good punching bag as George lambastes him for the legion of women he’s brought to his attention so far.

Leo’s libido contrasts with George’s more controlled passions. Nathanson conveys the filial feeling between the brothers and has at least one hilarious scene with his new sister-in-law.

Marsha Mason endows this production of “Chapter Two” with intelligence because she knows where the comedy is but emphasizes both the wisdom and the heart in Simon’s script. Her actors keep their characters authentic as Mason guides them to making reality and sincerity the hallmarks of their work.

The result is a moving show that provokes thought about relationships, especially relationships after a loss, and doesn’t stint on comedy or laughs. It incorporates them into a broader, more focused production that balances humor, drama, and sentiment revealing Simon’s comic take on a serious situation, one that meant as much to him as it meant/means to Mason.

Mason, by the way, will appear at the psychic novelist, Helga Ten Dorp, in Bucks County Playhouse’s upcoming production of Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap,” also from the late ’70s.

Lauren Helpern does a wonderful job at designing two Manhattan apartments that are distinct in look and mood but seem meant for their individual occupants. Bobby Frederick Tilley does a fine job dressing the characters, except for one floor-length floral monstrosity Faye wears in the second act.

“Chapter Two” runs through Sunday, June 15 at Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main Street, in New Hope, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $59.50 to $29 and can be obtained by calling 215-862-2121 or by going online to www.bcptheater.org.

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