When Brian Parks shuffled onstage at the beginning of the recent production of Neil Simon's "serious comedy" Chapter Two, at the Hackensack (N.J.) Cultural Arts Center, he conveyed immediately, and without words, the spiritual death of his character, Simon's alter-ego, George Schneider. The shoulders drooped; the eyes stared vacantly; and the legs carried him to a destination he didn't know and didn't care to reach.
Schneider was just one of four excellent reasons to attend this particular show. The other three reasons are his fellow cast members. I did not see Judd Hirsch, Anita Gillette, Ann Wedgeworth, or Cliff Gorman when the play premiered in 1977, nor have I yet caught James Caan, Marsha Mason, Joseph Bologna, and Valerie Harper in the film version two years later. But despite the considerable fame and talent of all these fine actors, I have a tough time imagining them embodying their characters with greater humor or rueful truth than Parks and his three co-stars do here.
Those of you outside Northern New Jersey might well remember Billy Joel's reference to the town in "Movin' Out," or, if you're a film buff, might recall the millionaire "John D. Hackensacker" in Preston Sturges' brilliant Palm Beach Story. So, you might do a double-take when you hear the word "culture" and "Hackensack" in the same phrase.
Moreover, I must admit to a prejudice against community theater. Less expensive drama, featuring a cast not found on Broadway—how could it possibly be that good?
Well, I have to 'fess up: I was wrong. Simon has been extremely well served by this production of Chapter Two, with the heartache played as adeptly as the hilarity.
Some people continue to maintain a prejudice against Simon as a commercial colossus who built a comedy empire on a cascade of one-liners that, collectively, amounted to little substantive. The endurance of this stereotype puzzles me, particularly in light of the fact that, beginning with The Gingerbread Lady in 1971, Simon has increasingly explored childhood traumas and adult neuroses. Like Woody Allen, his co-worker on Your Show of Shows, Simon’s work became emotionally richer in the mid-1970s.
Simon’s most painful and autobiographical work, Chapter Two, he freely acknowledges, was inspired by his second marriage, to Marsha Mason (who, like Allen’s ‘70s muse Diane Keaton, was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for essentially reenacting her real-life role as the artist’s love interest).
But this marriage, within one year after the death of his first wife Joan, occurred before Simon had adequately worked through his sense of loss. The playwright’s 1996 memoir, Rewrites, contains some of the most rhapsodic and moving passages that any writer has ever committed to paper about a loved one. (In many ways, I doubt that he ever did get over the loss of this vibrant and beautiful woman—Simon’s four subsequent marriages have not even approached the 20 years he had with Joan before she died of cancer.)
In this 1977 play, Simon mined this dark emotional territory in depth, but put it in a wider context, too: the scary re-entry into the dating scene by the middle-aged, whether through death or divorce. ) Jennie, the soap-opera actress that finally catches the despondent George’s interest, is not any luckier in love than he is: her marriage to a football player lasted six years but was only happy for one. Leo, George’s brother, and Faye, Jennie’s brassy best friend, conspire to throw the two together, but also have to face their own quietly desperate marital situations.
Louis Scarpati directed this romantic comedy-drama as a frankly period piece, with a set split between the apartments of George and Jennie featuring a rotary phone, typewriter and ‘70s songs (including one of Billy Joel’s earliest, “Great Suburban Showdown”). Taking this all in, I was afraid the script would seem dated.
But the only jokes that flopped related more to geography than to time. Blonde bimbos, for instance, such as the one Leo sets George up with on a previous occasion, have never faded from the scene since Jean Harlow took Hollywood by storm, and they’re just as reliable for laughs. (“I should never have introduced you to Bambi,” Leo exclaims ruefully at one point. “After Bambi you were ready for anything.”)
But strangely, the audience didn’t know how to react to New York jokes. I’m sure, for instance, that an opening-scene gag, about the desirability of parking space in the Big Apple, would bring the house down in any Broadway revival. Across the Hudson, it sank like a carp weighed down with toxic chemicals—and this despite the presence of many in the audience who either work in New York, have visited relatives there, or even lived there themselves.
Nevertheless, Scarpati used an excellent cast to best effect. I have already mentioned the fine work of Brian Parks as George, but matching him is the director’s wife, Andrea Prendamano, playing Jennie. George may be the moved character, but Jennie is the one with what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness,” and with every wry line reading and sparkle in her eyes, Prendamano made listeners understand how Jennie manages to administer emotional CPR to George. Most important, she shows us someone ready, when the going gets toughest, to fight to save her marriage—and to save George from a second spiritual death. Their interplay—whether in the hilarious phone sequence in which, in effect, they “meet cute”—to the denouement, in which George and Jennie confront the most painful facts about how much they can give to each other emotionally—was superb.
The actors playing the two sidekicks are equally adept. As Leo, David Russo might have the trickiest role in the play: a seemingly glib press agent with unexpected depths of concern for his brother. He was at the center of the play’s most farcical scene—an attempted seduction—and its most poignant—a long, shattering description to Jennie about George’s emotional devastation after Barbara’s death. Remarkably, he delivered equally well in each.
I first noticed this play because of a Bergen Record feature on the actress playing Faye, Nancy Malleo. With her throaty laugh, the tall blonde commanded the stage with aplomb, exuding Faye’s been-there-done-that aura effortlessly. She and her fellow members of "The Company" left me eager to hear about what their follow-up will be to their sharp and moving "Chapter Two."