Neil Simon’s ‘Chapter Two’ Launches New Season at Newport Theatre Arts Center

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Clockwise from top left: Victoria Serra, Mitchell Cohen, Lori Kelley and Thom Gilbert star in “Chapter Two” at NTAC / photo by Charles Weinberg

American playwright, screenwriter and author Neil Simon was incredibly prolific during his long career. He wrote more than 30 plays as well as numerous screenplays (usually based on his plays). He has the distinction of having more combined Oscar and Tony Award nominations than any other writer.

Overall, he garnered 17 Tony nominations and won three awards, and in 1983 became the only living playwright to have a New York theatre, the Neil Simon Theatre, named in his honor.

Simon’s style ranged from farce to romantic comedy to dramatic comedy (some called them dramadies), and his plays were often based on elements and situations from his own life

Such is the case with “Chapter Two,” which premiered on Broadway in 1977 and ran for 857 performances (after having its World Premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles).

The play fuses elements of farce, romance and a bit of drama from Simon’s life. He used the death of his first wife in 1973 and the tolerance of his second wife (actress Marsha Mason) with Simon’s long-lasting grief as fodder.

Mitchell Cohen, Victoria Serra and Lori Kelly in a scene from “Chapter Two” at NTAC

The play revolves around recently widowed writer George Schneider, who is introduced by his press agent brother to actress Jennie Malone, whose six-year marriage to a football player has dissolved. Both are hesitant to start dating and developing a new romance when her breakup is so recent and he still has memories of his deceased wife.

Sounds like serious stuff, and sometimes it is, but the fine production of “Chapter Two” at Newport Theatre Arts Center finds the right balance between humor and pathos.

Thom Gilbert plays George Schneider, and one can almost feel Simon’s presence through Schneider’s performance as the writer with a gift for words yet finds himself speechless when it comes to his grief. Simon wrote some snappy dialogue for George, and Gilbert seems to relish the words.

Simon also had fun with the character of Jennie, played by Lori Kelley, who once she catches on to George’s personality delivers some clever lines of her own. Kelly infuses her character with a buoyant charm that makes her the perfect complement for George’s morose moments.

Gilbert and Kelly are matched by the supporting cast of Mitchell Cohen as George’s scheming brother, Leo, and Victoria Serra as Faye, Jennie’s high-strung friend. Cohen and Serra add energy – and laughs – to nearly every scene they are in.

While the second half of the play has its serious moments, the cathartic emotional outbursts lead to a satisfying resolution.

Kudos to director Gig Fusco Meese for a well-staged, well-cast production, and to set designer Jim Huffman who created the very serviceable and functional dual-room set, complete with period décor and props (corded push-button phones, etc).

“Chapter Two” runs through Oct. 10. Masks are required for audience members. For tickets, visit www.ntaconline.com or call the box office at (949) 631-0288.

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