‘Chapter Two’ cast delivers comedy and drama

NILES — What happens when you meet the perfect person at a less-than-perfect time?

Writer George Schneider and soap opera actress Jennie Malone immediately click on the telephone. The banter comes quickly and cleverly, as if penned by Neil Simon. But Jennie is recently divorced and dreads the idea of re-entering the dating pool. George still is mourning the death of his beloved wife after a dozen years of marriage.

Their past can’t help but haunt their potential future in Simon’s “Chapter Two,” which opened Friday at Trumbull New Theatre.

“Chapter Two” is one of Simon’s most overtly autobiographical works — he married Marsha Mason (who got her start on soap operas) after a brief courtship the same year his wife died — and one of his more seriocomic.

The comedic elements are stronger in director Robert Spain’s staging, but the cast capably handles the tonal shifts in the story.

This is a deceptively challenging play. There only are four characters and it’s a dialogue-driven script made up primarily of two-character scenes filled with lengthy monologues. It shifts from the light banter Simon’s early plays are known for to confrontations fueled by grief, anger and fear, sometimes within the same scene.

As George Schneider, Ron Wolford probably has the most difficult role, and what made his performance opening weekend all the more impressive is that Wolford was a late addition to the production, stepping in when another actor left.

Simply memorizing that much dialogue that quickly is a herculean feat; being able to craft the words into an actual character in such a short time frame is more so.

Wolford and Amy Burd, who plays Jennie, are good together. Their connection feels believable. However, for a play about a relationship, many of the best moments happen when they’re apart with their respective confidantes.

Jennie’s best friend, Faye (Maria Ceraolo), pushes her to start dating again, hoping to escape her own passion-less marriage by vicariously enjoying Jennie’s new life as a single woman. George’s protective younger brother Leo (Herb Everman) encourages George to do the same and fixes him up on a couple of disastrous encounters.

Ceraolo and Everman are comedic pros who skillfully deliver Simon’s one-liners for maximum laughs. Everman also is impressive on one of the show’s most difficult monologues, taking Jennie through the death of George’s wife and detailing just how devastating it was for him.

The set, featuring George’s and Jennie’s apartments side-by-side on the TNT stage, allows for quick transitions from scene to scene, and Spain’s staging of the couple’s telephone courtship is effective. Spain also takes a show that essentially is one scene after another of two characters in an apartment exchanging dialogue and keeps the flow and character movement from feeling overly repetitive.

However, Simon’s script is a bit whiplash-inducing, swinging from glib quips to heart-wrenching grief. The cast is capable of both, but the shifts from one to the other felt too abrupt, too jarring at times. The overall pacing also could be tightened. Saturday’s performance ran about two hours and 45 minutes, including intermission.

Considering the rest of the cast only has been working with Wolford for about a month, those elements should improve during the show’s three-weekend run.

If you go …

WHAT: “Chapter Two”

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday through March 23 and 3 p.m. March 24

WHERE: Trumbull New Theatre, 5883 Youngstown Warren Road, Niles

HOW MUCH: $14 adults and $12 students. Tickets are available online at trumbullnewtheatre.tix. com and by calling the TNT box office 7 and 9 p.m. weekdays at 330-652-1103.

COMMENTS