You know those two masks that represent theater, the smiling mask of comedy and the scowling mask of tragedy? They are perfectly represented in Neil Simon’s “Chapter Two,” now playing at Live Theatre Workshop. What you laugh at are the one-liners, but what you take home is a deeper awareness of how we are all held captive by our past.
This production, directed by Douglas Mitchell, is serviceable enough. With so many jokes flying around, it’s impossible not to have a good time. Yet there’s not a lot of chemistry among the quartet of players presenting this semi-autobiographical tale of George (Eric Anson) trying to decide if he should continue mourning the death of his beloved wife.
The decision to mourn is easy enough as long as George is only meeting foolish women introduced by George’s well-meaning younger, married brother Leo (Brian Wees). But a sense of urgency fills George with indecision when he meets Jennie (Carrie Hill), a brilliantly witty divorcee whose quick comebacks give every conversation the verve of a sunny tennis match.
Suddenly George wonders if he should say “enough, already” to this preoccupation with his dead wife’s memory? What if Jennie really is as close as George will come to finding a woman who has the finely tuned mental skills to keep him entertained?
Happy to step in and complicate the story is Jennie’s best friend Faye (Kristi Loera). Make no mistake about it, the chemistry between Jennie and Faye is sparkling. Hill and Loera take these two characters for a real roller-coaster ride.
Hill and Loera deserve to have their own show. Since local theater companies are so in love with Simon these days, cast these two in the female version of Simon’s “The Odd Couple.” Now that would sizzle. You heard it here first.
Faye also has a big scene with Leo in the second act that works very well. Their shtick is to be a couple of mismatched personalities trying to find enough in common to have an affair. Their lack of success is intended to dramatize and make us hope for George and Jennie to bond.
Director Mitchell has chosen to represent George as being overwhelmed with depression, a widower so flattened out by grief his body language can’t expand beyond slumped shoulders and a sagging jaw. George does lighten up a little when Jennie comes around, but, to keep the tennis metaphor alive, most of the time it feels like George has to play with 20 pounds of lead weight strapped to each ankle.
Wees gives his part an energetic read, which adds contrast to George’s sad shuffle toward redemption after intermission. Yet the big scene in the second act when George and Jenny return, dejected, from their fizzle of a honeymoon gets bogged down in a recitation of pop psychoanalysis.
Fortunately, the entire first act and much of the second maintain the Simon standard of frequent one-liners. Every joke is delivered casually, without a background drummer providing rim shots to cue the laughter. Extra listening will yield extra laughs.
IF YOU GO
What: Live Theatre Workshop presents “Chapter Two” by Neil Simon
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays through July 22
Where: Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway Blvd.
Price: $14-$17, with discounts for cash.
Info: 327-4242, www.livetheatreworkshop.org