(When I began this job in 1980, pickings were slim, and I dreamed of a thriving, nationally-acclaimed theater community. Now we have one, and there’s much more theater than one critic can cover. So I am inviting “guest reviewers” to help me out and to bring different voices to these pages — Jeff Smith)
Chapter Two, the semi-autobiographical play by Neil Simon, is about a man trying to come to terms with death rather than a new life. It was written as a tribute to Marsha Mason, his second wife, and her tolerance with his long-lasting grief over the death of his first wife.
Now ensconced in the cozy environs of the North Coast Rep in Solana Beach, the play directed by David Ellenstein and Christopher Williams delivers many well-placed laughs and some highly dramatic punches as well. The script, though not that dated, still plays with a definite ‘70s vibe, so wisely is it played here as a period piece, replete with land-line corded phones and an avocado-colored refrigerator.
The costumes by Alina Bolovikova are brilliantly chosen for that bygone era and are stunningly color coordinated. The neat split set by Marty Burnett is well-done, though a slight cutaway wall upstage at the division between the two apartments could have helped to create the necessary illusion.
The first scene, one of many that bounce back and forth from one apartment to the other, started out very slow. Consequently David Ellenstein’s performance as George Schneider, the newly widowed novelist, was slow to hit high gear. However, he was realistically depressed and adequately sarcastic where it was needed.
Jacquelyn Ritz as Jennie, the newly divorced love interest of George, handles comedy and drama with equal agility. Her major monologue in one of the later scenes where she declares a new found confidence in spite of many setbacks was a genuine, stand alone gem.
The telephone scene at the beginning of George and Jennie’s relationship that is comprised of several phone calls was very charming and in the “5 minute” scene that followed Ellenstein was able to get laughs from lines that were surprising in their hilarity. He has the ability to look Ritz in the eyes and create a “moment” filled with attraction and vulnerability that makes the audience collectively catch their breath.
Mhari Sandoval as Jennie’s friend, Faye, is uniquely funny with a Southern accent that helps her delightfully quirky character come alive. Louis Lotorto, as George’s brother Leo, is a consummate actor who infuses the part with realistic gestures and East Coast energy that keeps his performance consistently exciting.
While Ellenstein and Ritz seem to struggle unduly with the material in the scene when they return from their honeymoon, they manage to get through the barrage of cruel remarks in order to make George’s line, that they may “have one of the most beautiful marriages in trouble,” ring true.
The lighting design of Matt Novotny nicely delineated the emotional tone of the piece, while the sound design by Chris Leussmann included some fun mid-70’s music that fit the mood of each scene.
This bright, crisp, and fast-moving Chapter Two is a fitting tribute to the last time it was performed here, 33 years ago, when the North Coast Rep first opened its doors.