ABOUT FIVE MINUTES into Chapter Two the hero breaks into tears. There's nothing extraordinary about such behavior--except that Chapter Two is a play by Neil Simon, from whom we expect snappy one-liners, not sobs. Though Simon's characters usually do struggle with the all-too-familiar daily frustrations that bugs us all, especially if we're upper middle class urban dwellers, Chapter Two's protagonist faces a much more catastrophic upheaval--the death of his beloved spouse.
George's wife has been dead a year when the play opens, and George (Jerry Orbach) still grieves, stolidly refusing efforts of his brother Leo (Herbert Edelman) to fix him up. While researching material for a new book, George accidentally phones one of Leo's prospects, an actress named Jennie (Marilyn Redfield), whose recent divorce leaves her, like George, resigned to the second chapter of her life, and being urged to date, by a friend, Faye (Jane A. Johnston). Intrigued by their mutual reluctance to get involved, Jennie and George meet, discover their minds--work in the same rhythm," and marry, all in the space of a few weeks. Despite the misgivings of their matchmakers, Jennie feels certain she has love enough for both of them, "I'll take whatever you'll give," she tells George, confident that he will fully reciprocate her feelings someday.
And therein lies the problem. George cannot reconcile the affection he feels for Jennie with his memory of his first wife Barbara; his desire for happiness clashes with the luxury of self-pity. The fact that his new wife does not condemn his compulsive comparison of spouses only provokes him to lash out at her. "You leave me so much room to be cruel in," he explains, contrite but unrepenitent. The couple becomes trapped in a vicious circle of guilt, anger, compassion, and fresh guilt.
As in most of Simon's plays, the theme has an autobiographical overtone. In many ways. George represents Simon, who has said he shared his character's turmoil when he abruptly married actress Marsha Mason some time after his first wife's death. Out of this painful period in his life. Simon has created a painfully effective portrait of human behavior at its most paradoxical: the man fears feeling happy, the woman's compassion threatens to kill her husband's affection. Chapter Two is a long way from the cute quarrels of the newlyweds in Barefoot in the Park. Simon's first success, based on the early days of his first marriage.
Happily, Chapter Two is not quite as grim as its plot: characteristic Simon wit surfaces frequently. For instance, when George accuses Leo of fixing him up with a prostitute, his brother indignantly defends the girl, and then asks. "Why, did she charge you?" On the whole, however. Simon avoids his usually relentless parade of quips. Chapter Two possesses none of the slick quality that mars some of his earlier plays, which made his characters sound like professional stand-up comedians, not believable human beings. Instead, the humor approaches the way people actually talk or joke, and even helps to crystallize one's impression of the characters. For example, the introductory scenes contrast her automatic efficiency with his numbed disorganization through jokes about the conditions of their respective apartments (her refrigerator is well-stocked, his contains "white bread turning into pumpernickel").
WELCOME AS THEY ARE, these funny moments make the play's mood inconsistent. Because Simon is re-creating, even exorcising, a personal anguish, he fails to balance pathos and humor as skillfully as he might have. In the second act, when the marriage begins to show signs of strain, an affair between Leo and Faye abruptly surfaces in an obvious attempt to give the play a little comic relief. This humorous interlude begins promisingly: Leo's attempts to calm the skittish Faye and disentangle her from a toga-style bed-sheet provide the most hysterical moments in Chapter Two. But this farcical scene turns solemn, too. Faye admits she doesn't really want to have an affair--"I don't have a good enough reason for being here"--while Leo, the experienced practitioner of the lunch hour tryst, confesses that he detests his inability to be a faithful husband. Leo's and Faye's sexual frustration parallels George's and Jennie's emotional frustration: Simon makes his comic supporting characters almost as depressed as his principals. As a result, the play gets too gloomy. If Leo want a little "Dispassionate passion," the audience could use a little unmitigated mirth.
Even though director Martin Herzer maintains a brisk pace. Chapter Two is simply too long--the first act runs nearly two hours. Herzer faithfully reproduces Herbert Ross's original staging, but regrettably, he could not reproduce the original cast. Marilyn Redfield's Jennie remains disappointingly one-dimensional, never conveying anything more than her character's chipper exterior. As Faye, Jane A. Johnston delivers her lines well, but not well enough to overcome a case of physical miscasting. Jennie's friend should be in the prime of beauty; Johnston's appearance makes Fay rather frowsy.
The men fare much better. Herbert Edelman, no stranger to Simon's work--he appeared most recently as Walter Matthau's brother in the movie California Suite--handles Leo's comic scenes with expertise, though he tends to rush through his serious speeches. Only Jerry Orbach is completely and consistently excellent, especially in his physical gestures. At one point, he strokes his dead wife's picture as tenderly as if he were touching the woman herself--then jerks his hand away to hide the private gesture from his brother. Whether indulging in outrageous facial clowning, or making his voice crack with pain, Orbach's performance is perfectly controlled.
ALL IN ALL, the power of Simon's writing and Orbach's acting help the play transcend its excessive length and half its cast. Chapter Two is not a funny play; it is a fundamentally somber play with some funny lines. The man so often heralded as America's greatest comic playwright has now chosen not to make us laugh at human pain this time. With Chapter Two, Simon puts the hurts people inflict on each other center-stage, instead of allowing us an indirect glimpse through snappy one-liners.