When a theater decides to produce a Neil Simon play, it’s a smart choice.
But that production's success still hinges on good actors and direction. Cambria's Pewter Plough Playhouse fulfills both requirements with its current production of “Chapter Two,” one of four Simon plays that were Broadway hits during the 1970s and among those made into movies.
Simon’s scripts focus less on action and more on dialogue, and “Chapter Two” is no exception.
It’s the second time around for widower George (Gene Strohl), a best-selling novelist, and divorcee Jennie (Toni Young), a soap opera actress. They are still licking their wounds, and not ready to face Manhattan’s singles scene.
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But George’s married brother Leo (Rick Bruce), a press agent, and Jennie’s married best friend Faye (Sharyn Young), also an actress, believe these two loners would be happier with some companionship and keep hooking them up with unsuitable potential partners.
The two singles talk initially when George dials Jennie’s number — which Leon had left for him — by mistake.
On the phone, George and Jennie each realize they share the same sardonic sense of humor, and appreciate each other's intelligence — a discovery that’s especially refreshing to George given the bimbo Leo had previously fixed him up with.
When George and Jennie meet face to face, they click — to their shared amazement. The whirlwind romance that follows causes some concerns, however, as the lovers are heading to the altar too swiftly.
Following George and Jennie's lives in their separate apartments is like watching side-by-side TV monitors and requires no set changes.
Director Viv Goff designed the set, which shows Jennie’s dwelling on stage left and George’s digs on stage right divided by an invisible wall. A brief darkening of the lights accompanies scene changes.
The women's fetching outfits, along with the characters’ rotary phones and George’s portable manual typewriter establish the time period as the late 1970s.
Although only four actors are involved, other characters come to life through Simon’s rich writing. The playwright provides vivid descriptions of Leo’s wife, Jennie’s husband, George’s deceased wife and Jennie’s ex-husband, as well as Jennie’s and George’s blind dates.
Comedy and romance prevail in the first act, balanced with enough light drama to give the audience some back story, but in the shorter and final act the drama gets deep and disturbing.
Simon is famous for his often semi-autobiographical work, and “Chapter Two” is especially personal. The prolific playwright based this story on the death of his own wife and the patient woman who helped him find love again.
Strohl, the longtime host of “Composer’s Parade” on public radio station KCBX, convincingly plays the sensitive, socially inept George. Although Strohl has been involved in theater as an actor and director for most of his adult life, this is his first leading role.
Toni Young once again shows her talent and versatility on stage, moving her lank, graceful body with ease, her voice clear and audible.
As the confident, outgoing Leo, Bruce is delightful, even though this is only his second appearance acting on stage. The large, long-haired man is often seen in costume around Cambria as the Village Wizard.
Sharyn Young is a chameleon, barely recognizable in her various roles. This is her 13th time performing at the Plough — if not a lucky number for her, then lucky for the audience.
7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday; through Aug. 8
Pewter Plough Playhouse, 850 Main St., Cambria
$17 to $22
927-3877 or www.pewterploughplayhouse.org