When New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse announced Marsha Mason would direct Neil Simon’s 1977 play, “Chapter Two,” the task of any actress playing the show’s female lead, Jennie Malone, loomed as quite daunting.
Mason, as Simon’s second wife, is not only the model for Jennie, but she earned a 1979 Oscar nomination for playing her alter ego in the movie. The woman hired to play the part at BCP would have to portray Jennie while pleasing Mason.
Anastasia Griffith more than meets the challenge. Mason must be flattered by the intelligence, grace, wit, and sincerity Griffith gives Simon’s character. From her initial entrance, Griffith brings strong sensibility and palpable authenticity to each scene. She galvanizes Mason’s production with her affecting performance and sets a tone of excellence that spreads throughout the cast and makes “Chapter Two” piercingly revealing as a look at true love that has to overcome the obstacles of loss and memory of past relationships to flourish.
BCP’s revival of “Chapter Two” shows intensity, an emotional core its original production and film starring Mason did not muster. Simon’s play seems deeper and more intent in presenting characters of fuller human dimension than it did in earlier productions. Humor is generated from the characters’ wit. Laughs arise because the characters are funny in expressing themselves rather than from actors pushing jokes and selling one-liners. As a result “Chapter Two” is seen as touching and serious as it depicts what commitment means and how ready a recent widower and divorcee are to sublimate the unrecoverable past and head for a more promising future.
This “Chapter Two” comes most to life when characters are leveling about their true feelings, particularly their fears. Mason’s production emphasizes earnestness that shows on characters’ faces before it is verbally expressed. Byplay, repartee, and confrontation all garner due attention because of the honesty with which they are presented.
“Chapter Two” tells the story of a widower, George (Joey Slotnick), who goes into paralyzing depression following the death of his wife. George’s brother, Leo (Michael Nathanson), seeing improvement in George’s mood and vitality, begins to arrange dates for him, all disasters. George calls Jennie by mistake when her telephone number is on the same card as a source he needs to research a novel. His error sets up a series of scenes Slotnick and Griffith ace with amiable charm, and Simon’s play is propelled into entertainingly involving action.
Just as George has Leo — a serial philanderer — for a sounding board, Jennie has Faye (Nadia Bowers), an unhappily married woman who is on the constant lookout for affection and warmth. She also had a pre-marriage fling with Leo.
Slotnick is a believable George. He has an ease of delivery and relaxed posture that show a man in command of his intelligence and aware of, but not too pushy with, his knack for snappy word play. Slotnick is also adept at being abashed when necessary and gives insight into a man who has to summon courage to talk to a woman to whom he is attracted.
The boyish nervousness he exposes is a good contrast to George’s usual nonchalance and to scenes in which he becomes biting and sullen until Jennie can force him to face his concerns.
Leo’s and Faye’s separately fruitless quests for the kind of relationship George and Jennie establish offset the difference between people who play at love from the people who find it.
Bowers is touching as Faye who, at first, seems to be comic relief, a romantic and organizational mess compared with meticulous Jennie, but she is eventually seen as someone who craves affection her husband denies her and she’s timid about seeking. Bowers wins our hearts with a speech that defines her loneliness.
Nathanson also has a strong passage that explains his endless need to seduce women. This speech gives the actor the chance to earn the audience understanding his cast mates have elicited. Otherwise, Nathanson seems out of rhythm, broader than the others, and overtly intent on putting comedy ahead of character. That said, I think Nathanson will catch up with Griffith, Slotnick, and Bowers as “Chapter Two” runs.
Lauren Halpern designs two wonderful apartments for George and Jennie. Bobby Frederick Tilley gives everyone suitable costumes, though I question a flowered floor-length horror Faye wears in Act Two, and Leo should tuck in his shirt when he’s wearing a jacket.
Chapter Two, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. Tuesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., and Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday at 3 p.m. through Sunday, June 15. $29 to $59.50. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.