by Jessica Hoffman
I must admit I’m a sucker for a comedy–a Neil Simon comedy all the moreso. Schenectady Civic Players’ current production, Chapter Two, is neither Neil Simon’s funniest comedy nor his most profound drama, but it is nevertheless chock full of Simon’s witty repartee and true-to-life, laugh-out-loud humor.
Chapter Two is about a widower named George Schneider (played by Christopher Urig) struggling to move on following the death of his first wife and to enjoy his whirlwind romance with Jennie Malone (played by Cristina Caruso James). Based in part on Neil Simon’s relationship with his second wife, Chapter Two is equal parts comedy and drama in a way that reflects the realities of love, loss, and moving through life after a tragedy. In a B-plot which has little to do with George and Jennie’s story except physical proximity (but which provides some welcome comic relief) George’s brother Leo (Ryan Palmer) and Jennie’s friend Faye (Mary Bourden) grapple with unhappy marriages and extramarital relationships.
The play takes place in two apartments: George’s and Jennie’s. The set is therefore designed to be half Jennie’s home and half George’s, with a slanted mustard-yellow wall artistically cutting across the stage to indicate the two different apartments. The fact that both apartments happen to be painted in the same shade of pea-soup green not only works with the rest of the set but is entirely believable for the late 1970’s. The furniture in Jennie’s home, designed by Jackie Amilivia, is sleek, white, and sensible, much like Jennie’s character. George’s furniture, on the other hand, is mismatched and unstylish; and while the set for George’s home would befit a bachelor’s unfashionable abode, I found it difficult to believe he had shared his home until recently with a woman of any taste.
Urig and James play the protagonists George and Jennie well and have excellent chemistry onstage. James is occasionally more stiff than the moment calls for, but the delivery of her razor-sharp wit is excellent. Urig particularly shines in his charmingly awkward courtship during Act One. Yet the two main actors are somewhat overshadowed by their supporting counterparts. Mary Bourden commands the stage as Jennie’s dramatic and amorous best friend. And Ryan Palmer absolutely steals the show as George’s smooth-talking and sardonic brother. From the moment he walks onstage to announce his incredible parking space (in a way that puts one in mind of a more charming but equally funny George Costanza from Seinfeld), Palmer is delightful and hilarious. In Act Two, he delivers a deeply heartfelt monologue describing George’s grief in the wake of his first wife’s death and, in doing so, Palmer proves that while he is hilarious, he is so much more than just a comic relief actor.
This production of Chapter Two is costumed by Beth Ruman, whose costume design never disappoints, but whose attention to detail in this show deserves particular praise. (I am mostly speaking of Leo’s collection of garish ties.) Hair and make-up designer Kat Fronheiser also deserves praise for George’s perfectly coiffed hair.
I will say again that for all its merit, Chapter Two is not one of Simon’s deepest plays, nor is it one of his funniest. It lacks the rollicking hilarity of some of his more farcical comedies but it does not quite live up to his more poignant dramas either. It’s a shame, because Chapter Two has all the makings of a truly deep play about love, loss, and starting over. But the play never really seems to make any points other than those so quintessential to comedy (the absurdity of life, love, and parking in Manhattan) that they hardly merit mention. The play even seems to acknowledge its own shortcomings when Faye cheekily remarks “There’s a lesson to be learned from all this… I wonder what the hell it is.” And so concludes a play that falls just short of the humor I might expect from a great farce, and just short of the depth I might expect from a great drama.
Still, the current production at Schenectady Civic Playhouse is well worth your time. Even if Chapter Two isn’t one of Neil Simon’s standout plays, it still has enough of Simon’s signature wit and humor to keep the audience laughing, enough drama to move the audience, and an excellent cast that delivers exactly what the play calls for.
Schenectady Civic Players presents Chapter Two by Neil Simon, directed by Barbara Davis, runs from November 10-19, 2023, at the Schenectady Civic Playhouse, 12 South Church Street in Schenectady, NY. Stage Manager: Josh Palmer. Board operator: Elise Charlebois. Producers: Gary Hoffman and Michael Schaefer. Cast: Christopher Urig as George Schneider, Ryan Palmer as Leo Schneider, Cristina Caruso James as Jennie Malone, and Mary Borden as Faye Medwick. Stage Crew: Thorn Burnham. Set design and construction by Peter Kantor. Lighting design by David Caso. Sound design by Brian Starnes. Costume design by Beth Ruman. Make-up and hair design by Kat Fronheiser. Properties and set dressing by Jackie Amilivia.
Performance dates are Friday–Sunday (November 10-12) and Wednesday–Sunday (November 15-19). Friday and Saturday curtains are at 8 pm, Wednesday and Thursday curtains are at 7:30 pm, and Sundays are matinees only at 2:30 pm. All tickets are $25. Runs approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission. Contains sexual themes and discussions of adultery. Recommended for ages 12+. Tickets are available online, by phone, or at the door for any performance. Call 518-382-2081 or visit civicplayers.org for more information.