By Lesley Snyder
How do you continue on after the death of a spouse? The Shelburne Players grapple with this question in their performance of Neil Simon’s aptly-named play, “Chapter Two.” One of Simon’s lesser-known productions, “Chapter Two” is semi-autobiographical, based on his marriage to actress Marsha Mason while mourning his beloved first wife. The structure may seem simple – a four-character script staged in two Manhattan apartments – but this dynamic comedy is crafted within a heartbreaking story of mortality, widowed love, and second chances.
Josh McDonald plays Simon’s doppelganger, George Schneider, a recently-widowed novelist thrust back into the dating scene by his publicist brother, Leo. McDonald portrays a convincing George, with understated wit and a dichotomy of incompatible emotions: grief-stricken over his dead wife yet smitten by recently-divorced Jennie Malone, a vivacious actress played by Nan Murat. McDonald and Murat are gracefully emotional and exchange telephone banter with spot-on charm. Murat artfully executes Jennie’s snippy one-liners. (“This is just a guess: do you write for Field and Stream?” she teases.) Her show-closing monologue, arguably the plot’s climax, batters the stage with an eruption of lovesick desperation. Jennie is self-confident but doesn’t find her post-divorce sea legs until sermonizing George in the second act. “I can’t promise you I’m not going to die, George,” sighs Jennie. “That’s too much.”
Jennie’s matchmaker friend, Faye Medick (played by Alise Certa), is a source of hilarity. Certa’s costume gags play well with Faye and Leo’s farcical adultery. Jon van Luling is cast as Leo and balances his protective brotherly instincts with doses of lighthearted humor; van Luling gets Leo exactly right as the good-natured non-monogamist.
The Players effectively convey each complex relationship and deliver every bout of witty repartee with expert timing. It was as if the Players were not portraying characters but had sprung from the pages of Simon’s work. As an entirely volunteer operation, the Players’ fall play is nothing less than impressive, considering the actors memorized a three-hour-long script. Even the sets are impeccable. George and Jennie’s apartments are so well-constructed and sweetly decorated, you might just want to move in.
Tugging at your heart strings and tickling your funny bone, the Shelburne Players don’t miss a page in Simon’s “Chapter Two.” Its premise isn’t topical – it’s timeless. “When we enter the world of Neil Simon,” says Director Dick Hibbert, “we may find that we are looking at ourselves.”
Catch one of three more performances at Shelburne Town Center, Friday through Sunday, Nov. 14-16, at 7:30 pm. For more information, visit www.shelburneplayers.com. Tickets may be purchased at the door or in Shelburne Supermarket.