A Prolific Playwright’s Second Chapter Unfolds in Poulsbo

Chapter Two, Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical tale of a whirlwind romance, is on now at the Jewel Box Theatre in Poulsbo. It runs through May 5. 


As a kid raised in a thoroughly theatrical household, Neil Simon and I are old pals. I can’t remember a time when I hadn’t seen the 1967 film adaptation of his first big hit, Barefoot in the Park, starring the impossibly beautiful duo of Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. Ignoring their protests, I dragged my high school buddies to a local production of his semi-autobiographical show-business comedy Laughter on the 23rd Floor, and forced them to watch his hoary 1976 detective spoof, Murder by Death, at sleepovers (cementing my status as a real cool cat amongst my peers).

But my favorite was always The Goodbye Girl, his 1977 hit film starring a young Richard Dreyfuss (who won an Oscar for his performance as neurotic actor Elliot Garfield) and Simon’s then-wife Marsha Mason, in a classic enemies-to-lovers scenario. Forced by circumstances to share a New York apartment, they bicker, they feud, they kiss. I was entranced, not only by the romance, but by Simon’s quick-fire dialogue, the sophisticated (for a kid from Fort Worth, Texas, anyway) banter between the two high-strung artistic types — a common through-line in many of Simon’s works. I practically wore out my VHS copy. (I am, in fact, old.)  

Not having access to Wikipedia in those days, I had no idea that Mason was Neil Simon’s wife when the movie was filmed, and I certainly didn’t know about their romantic comedy-worthy meet-cute. Mason and Simon (just three months out from the death of his wife of 20 years) first met during rehearsals for his 1973 play The Good Doctor and were married 22 days later.

Simon detailed the whirlwind romance — with some creative license, one assumes — in his 1977 play Chapter Two, a production of which is currently up at Poulsbo’s Jewel Box Theatre. The script — not one of Simon’s first-tier pieces — is a bit overstuffed and dated, and your mileage may vary as to whether its emotional arcs totally work, but Jewel Box’s ensemble tackles it gamely, bringing verve and enthusiasm to this semi-romantic, semi-comedy.

George Schneider (Raymond Deuel) is our Simon stand-in; widowed after 12 happy years of marriage, the author returns from a European vacation still mired in his grief. Eager for him to get back out there, George’s brother Leo (Casey Cline) knows just the girl. George resists, but accidentally ends up calling the lady in question, recently divorced actress Jennie Malone (Alix Black), and telephonic sparks fly. After a few blissfully happy weeks together, the two get married. But, in the wake of their disastrous honeymoon, the couple can’t help but wonder if the doubters were right: did they move too fast?

Both George and Jennie are tricky roles. George (a role pioneered in its original run by the great and good Judd Hirsch) runs hot and cold with Jennie throughout the play, at one moment over the moon, at the next lashing out at her with a toxic mix of anger and guilt; and director Karen Hauser has Deuel steer into the emotional turns with aplomb. Black’s Jennie, a character who’s a bit of a proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl, not uncommon in Simon’s plays, is a little harder to read, but one senses that’s more indicative of issues with the script. Nevertheless, the two definitely make the most of the characters’ early flirtations; their initial phone call and subsequent pre-date brim with heat and charm. They also don’t shy away from their characters’ less-than-attractive qualities later on, and Deuel in particular digs deep into George’s uglier side.

Cline’s Leo, whose sub-plot with Jennie’s married friend Faye (Autumn McMurry) feels a little shoehorned in, brings a gruff humor and affection to his interactions with Deuel, but also sells the character’s more sincere moments. McMurry nails her character’s neuroses and gets off some nice bon mots, especially in the play’s second act, but her shenanigans with Leo (the two attempt, and fail, to have an affair) mostly feel like a distraction from the play’s main event. 

If I have a bone to pick with Jewel Box’s production, which makes the most of their small-ish space and has some nicely period costume pieces (credit to Beth Anne Galloway, Hauser, and the cast itself), it’s with something that may feel like a nitpick: the scene changes. While obviously constrained by the switches between the play’s dual locations (George’s nicely appointed Central Park West pad and Jennie’s more colorful Upper East Side apartment), the lengthy re-sets by the stage crew were an unfortunate drag on the play’s momentum and energy when coupled with the play’s already bloated run-time, though the era-appropriate music choices played during the blackouts were a thoughtful addition. Having seen the play on its opening night, one can hope that the changes will get speedier over its remaining run. 

It’s fashionable to sneer at Neil Simon these days, and even in his prime, he was never held in high esteem by most critics, despite (or probably because of) his commercial success, and his focus on comedy over tragedy. But there’s a good reason his plays remain a perpetual mainstay of smaller theaters: people still connect with them. Jewel Box’s production of Chapter Two finds the funny but doesn’t shy away from the play’s messier elements, striving to ground the sometimes-unanchored script in real emotion with some surprising success. 

Chapter Two runs through 5/5 at the Jewel Box Theatre in Poulsbo. Tickets are $22, hereAccessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; theatre is wheelchair accessible (via alternate entrance on Jensen St.).

Run time: 3 hours 10 minutes, with intermission 

Jill Farrington Sweeney is a Texas ex-pat getting to know the Seattle-area arts scene, and is perpetually on the hunt for good Mexican food. Her writing has appeared on TheaterJones, Onstage NTX, and NWTheatre.