A Widowed Writer Marries a Divorced Actress in “Chapter Two”; Pegasus Theatre Project Presents Neil Simon’s Poignant Comedy
“CHAPTER TWO”: Performances are underway for Pegasus Theatre Project’s production of “Chapter Two.” Directed by Jennifer Nasta Zefutie, the play runs through September 24 at the West Windsor Arts Center. Left to right: Leo Schneider (Frank Falisi, standing) and Faye Medwick (Sarah Stryker, standing) attempt to make — then stall — a match between George Schneider (Peter Bisgaier) and Jennie Malone (Heather Plank). (Photo by John M. Maurer)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
Pegasus Theatre Project is presenting Chapter Two at the West Windsor Arts Center. In Neil Simon’s bittersweet romantic comedy, a widowed novelist begins a relationship with a divorced actress. The match is facilitated and encouraged by the novelist’s brother and the actress’s friend.
Simon’s autobiographical script is more somber than some may expect of this playwright. However, witty dialogue is still in abundance, and it is given impeccable delivery by a talented cast.
George Schneider is an author who is mourning the loss of his wife, whose photograph is an immediate focal point of his New York apartment. He has just returned from a trip to Europe, and both his life and apartment are in disarray. George’s younger brother Leo, a press agent, wants George to find another woman; unfortunately, Leo has introduced George to women who would not have been a good match.
Similarly, actress Jennie Malone has been recently divorced from her husband, a football player. Like George, she has just returned from a trip, but her life and home are organized in careful detail. Her friend Faye Medwick, another actress, encourages her to start dating again. When Jennie responds that she does not want to date yet, Faye retorts, “Neither does George Schneider. At least you have something in common.”
Intending to call someone else, George accidentally dials Jennie’s number. After a series of awkward phone calls that progress from cordial to friendly, George and Jennie decide to meet — if only to silence Leo and Faye.
George and Jennie fall in love, and — to the astonishment of Faye and Leo — decide to get married despite having met quite recently. Leo warns Jennie that George is still mourning the loss of his first wife. Faye, too, is concerned that the relationship is moving too quickly; however, she asks permission to use Jennie’s apartment.
When George and Jennie return from their honeymoon, the mood is sour. His grief has resurfaced, and Jennie’s attempts to console him are met with verbal assaults. To get away from George, Jennie returns to her apartment; there she discovers that Faye and Leo — both of whom are unhappily married — are having an affair.
Like Broadway Bound, which was inspired by the early stages of Simon’s career, Chapter Two is semi-autobiographical. George is a surrogate for the playwright, whose marriage to actress Marsha Mason was complicated by his grief over the loss of his first wife, Joan Baim. Mason portrayed Jennie in the 1979 film.
The costumes by Chrissy Johnson evoke the period, recalling fashion trends such as prints and wide collars. Careful attention has been paid to the characters’ complete appearance, including hairstyles. Well-chosen musical excerpts, which include recordings by the Carpenters, further establish the late 1970s setting.
The economical but detailed sets by Judi Parrish establish the personalities of George and Jennie. Jennie’s apartment, filled with plants, is bright and cheerful; George’s is darker and more subdued, though paintings decorate the walls of both apartments — particularly appropriate given that the venue is a gallery. The apartments are configured as mirror images, with their doors on opposite ends of the stage.
Of the set design, director Jennifer Nasta Zefutie has observed that “whereas the traditional design for Chapter Two is to draw a line down the center of the stage and put each apartment on either side, we’re able to build two stages so each apartment is its own, self-contained playing space.” This underlines the extent to which George and Jennie need to inhabit their own space before they can share it.
This production’s quartet of actors exudes strong chemistry, deftly choreographed movement, and nimble comic timing. Zefutie’s polished direction makes effective use of Parrish’s dual set, juxtaposing the characters in lively tableaux.
To George, Peter Bisgaier brings much of the tension that permeated his portrayal of Marc in Art, the previous Pegasus production. Bisgaier is an actor with commanding stage presence. As with the earlier play, he portrays a character who is often vociferous and combative. Here, however, his deliberately nervous body language underlines that much of George’s conflict is with himself.
This is complemented by Heather Plank, who gives an equally layered performance. Her Jennie is a nurturing, calming influence — but this conceals inner strength that surfaces when it is needed. It is heartrending but satisfying to watch her react when Jennie is on the defensive.
As Leo, Frank Falisi offers a relaxed wryness in response to George’s tension, and meets Jennie’s amorous resolve with protective brotherly concern. His performance is imbued with an earnest sincerity — except for his flirtation with Faye, for which he exudes an oily charm.
Sarah Stryker is entertaining as the flamboyant and world-weary Faye. Like Falisi, she has a flair for comic timing — much of it nonverbal — that serves Zefutie’s staging well.
Chapter Two shares concepts with They’re Playing Our Song. Inspired by a love affair between composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager — Simon’s collaborators on the show — the 1979 musical centers on a pair of songwriters whose romantic relationship is complicated by, among other factors, incessant phone calls from the lyricist’s ex-boyfriend. Once again, the past impedes the present.
In structure and tone, Chapter Two also bears some similarity to the (non-Simon) musical The Fantasticks: a romantic first act is followed by a darker second act, in which the exhilaration of a relationship is replaced by an awareness of its problems.
Given its humorous but honest examination of grief, Chapter Two is more pensive than Neil Simon comedies such as The Odd Couple. However, the self-reflection is leavened by the playwright’s trademark wit. “We have one of the most beautiful marriages that was ever in trouble,” George remarks to Jennie.
“Committed to examining the full spectrum of situations and emotions humankind experiences, Pegasus stages intimate productions that are compelling and fun,” the Pegasus Theatre Project states in their program notes. With this nuanced and visually alluring production, the company has fulfilled its mission.
Presented by the Pegasus Theatre Project, “Chapter Two” will play at the West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road in Princeton Junction, through September 24. For further information call (609) 759-0045 or visit pegasustheatrenj.org.