Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
March 6, 2015
There’s a strong scent of nostalgia in the air at North Coast Repertory Theatre.
As part of its 33rd anniversary season, the company is taking a trip down memory lane, in more ways than one. They’re re-mounting the first show ever produced by the theater: Neil Simon’s “Chapter Two.” Written and set in the late ‘70s, the comedy is classic Simon, who never met a one-liner he didn’t like. The man can wield an axe of humor to shred a serious scene faster than an army of first-responders.
This excellent production features meticulously designed set and costumes, and compelling, convincing performances. But despite the rapid repartee, the piece drags on – for more than 2½ hours, and its light weight can’t sustain that duration.
The matinee audience of Baby Boomers-and-beyond laughed its collective head off, even though the comedy covers the sober subject of a recent widower and a divorcée diving back – perhaps prematurely — into the warm water of romance.
Like many Simon works, it’s semi-autobiographical, based on his relationship with actress Marsha Mason – wife #2 of 5 – after the death of his first spouse. Not surprisingly, his central characters are a writer and an actress, superbly played by North Coast artistic director David Ellenstein and visiting actor Jacquelyn Ritz. For additional, though not indispensable, comic relief, each has a sidekick: George’s slick womanizer of a brother, and Jennie’s unhappy housewife/actress friend, effusively portrayed by the very funny Louis Lotorto and unrestrained Mhari Sandoval.
Ellenstein co-directed with Christopher Williams, and they keep the pace sprightly. No one writes rat-a-tat badinage like Simon, but his nonstop quippiness can wear out its welcome, especially when plunked in this play’s formulaic structure and overall predictability.
Neil Simon was the 20th century king of American comedy. He’s still good for a few laughs – and maybe even a deep thought or two about loss, healing and mid-life love.
“Chapter Two ” runs through March 29, at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
©2015 PAT LAUNER