Chicago Theater Review: CHAPTER TWO (Windy City Playhouse in Irving Park)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 2, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


Taking a chance at love–that’s the germ and gist of Neil Simon’s mating comedy. Chapter Two remains a quasi-autobiographical depiction of the national jester’s rocky courtship with actress Marsha Mason, his second wife. Not the “simple Simon” of his gag-ridden The Out-of-Towners or The Odd Couple, this 1977 concoction takes a hard look at lingering loss. Foolishly searching for new love to wipe out lasting regrets, the characters, alas, seem more confused than complex, more manipulated than complicated. But Jessica Thebus’s solid staging, the final offering in the first season of Windy City Playhouse, sharpens the edges and raises the stakes. After 150 minutes, Simon’s slick and silly sitcom yields up a saving seriousness: The puppets have broken their strings. Chapter Two turns out to be more than a Sex and the City for the disco era.

Brian McCaskill and Amy Rubenstein in CHAPTER TWO-credit Michael Brosilow

Simon’s surrogate is George Schneider (Brian McCaskill), a 42-year-old detective novelist and reluctant widower mired in unprocessed mourning for his late wife. Haunting Europe to recall his honeymoon a dozen years before, he’s returned to his snug and claustrophobic New York apartment (cozily realized by Scott Davis). Notwithstanding his own industrial adultery, George’s libidinous press-agent brother Leo (Peter DeFaria) urges George to get back to dating, despite foisting on him various unsuitable candidates.

Peter DeFaria in CHAPTER TWO - photo by Michael Brosilow

Meanwhile, in a trendier adjoining apartment, soap-opera actress Jennie Malone (Amy Rubenstein), just divorced from her jock husband of six years, gets the same pep talk from her pal gal Faye Medwick (Amy J. Carle). Full of wise advice she has no intent to follow, Faye is a matchmaker whose own shaky marriage is no argument for second chances. Naturally, she manages to hook up with equally opportunistic Leo: Settling for sex, the squabbling duo cultivate what he calls “dispassionate passion,” a weird ardor that feeds on the illusion of intimacy and abhors truthful confessions like an STD.

Brian McCaskill and Amy Rubenstein in CHAPTER TWO-photo by Michael BrosilowPlaying Cupid, the salty friends inspire a first date between these sudden “exes.” This late-night “meeting cute” introduction–a weird mix of George’s light-hearted stalking and Jennie’s fascinated curiosity–feels as much accident as intention. It works: Way-too-fast George overlooks his unfinished grief. Ten years younger, Jennie swoons like a schoolgirl over this romantic writer with a past that won’t fascinate her for long.

Wise to the insecurities of infatuation and the perversities of passion, Simon has fun exposing the befuddlement of serial philanderers Faye and Leo. They’re jealous and astonished by their confidants’ sudden urge to merge. In no time the quickly-hitched couple are newlyweds returning from a disastrous honeymoon in Barbados. They’re crushed by having gotten what they wanted and, not incidentally, married a stranger in progress.

Brian McCaskill and Peter DeFaria in CHAPTER TWO -credit Michael Brosilow

Simon might have ended it all right here, marinating in the spitefulness of his more pugilistic farces. But there’s courage to this comedy, however arbitrary the partners’ mood swings and despite the contrivances behind their managed outrage. Surprisingly cruel, George says things that in real life cannot be taken back–but this is Neil Simon: Stupidity that would flourish in an actual marriage gets stood up and squelched. Jennie fights for her feelings–and her implacable desire not to blow this second chance creates a force field that George must join. Call it love because, given the Olympic-sized degrees of difficulty in this tested romance, nothing else explains a weakness that’s so strong.

Amy Rubenstein and Amy J. Carle in CHAPTER TWO-photo by Michael Brosilow

Thebus’s cast savors the friction built into a script that detonates every quarter hour. Rubenstein’s quicksilver Jennie sharply sets off George’s elaborate survivor’s guilt. Her intensity becomes a kind of check, then a cure, for his torpid writer’s (emotional) block. A sexual pig for all seasons, DeFaria’s Leo has fun fucking with Faye more than fornicating. For these friends with benefits, sex separates as much as it fuses. In contrast for Jennie and George their heads mess up what their hearts desire. For Simon’s lonely souls there’s nothing artificial about their inseminations: Simon delivers a crash course in the challenge of timing desire and fulfillment as much as stimulus and orgasm. There’s no need for a Chapter Three.

Brian McCaskill and Amy Rubenstein in CHAPTER TWO - photo by Michael Brosilow.

Amy J. Carle in CHAPTER TWO-photo by Michael Brosilowphotos by Michael Brosilow

Chapter Two
Windy City Playhouse
3014 W. Irving Park Road
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri & Sat at 8;
Sun at different times (check dates)
ends on December 20, 2015
for tickets, call 312-374-3196
or visit Windy City Playhouse

for info on more Chicago Theater,
visit Theatre in Chicago

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