Curtain Critic: “Chapter Two,” Arizona Theatre Company’s start to the new season

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Ben Huber and David Mason in Arizona Theatre Company’s Chapter Two. (Courtesy of Tim Fuller, Arizona Theatre)

Watching two people fall in love has never been more charming or comical.

Arizona Theatre Company opened its new season with “Chapter Two,” a play written by Neil Simon about his second wife, Martha Mason. Mason herself serves as the director for this performance.

After the recent death of his beloved wife of twelve years, George Schneider (David Mason) shrinks at the idea of dating again. After his well-meaning but bumptious brother, Leo (Ben Huber), sets him up with three girls who wear electric dresses, smuggle TNT across borders, and bear the name Bambi, respectively, the flame of romance in his heart has all but fizzled out. He doesn’t want to call any of the girls Leo tries to set him up with, despite Leo’s pleas that the final girl he’s found is the one for George.

The flame in George’s heart bursts into the sky like a firework when he calls Jennie Malone (Blair Baker) by accident. While researching for a book, George mixes up an interview contact with Jennie’s phone number, left on his table by Leo. Although the two of them can’t see one another, their chemistry is immediately evident through their lively banter and excited energy.

Director Martha Mason expresses their budding closeness through a clever stage positioning, or blocking, tactic. Throughout the conversation, Jennie stands to the left of the stage while George nervously paces to the right. The two talk from their separate apartments, and it is obvious that they’re from two different worlds. Yet at the height of their conversation, the two of them stand as closely as they possibly can: both are still in their respective apartments, but the close proximity and mirrored postures reveal their blossoming love.

The stage itself is beautifully set, with details such as a little bookcase beneath Jennie’s apartment and near George’s chair, implying their shared love of literature and the arts. Scenic designer Lauren Helpern chose a blue and purple 3D skyline of New York that serves as a subtle yet glitzy stratosphere above the dreamy lovebirds in the play.

George Schneider is clever and endearing; during emotional moments, Mason’s voice drifts to a slightly old-fashioned manner of speaking, reminiscent of actors in old movies. This happens when he’s embarrassed during his first conversation with Jennie, and later on, when the newly married couple have their first fight. This choice further characterizes George’s need for control and authority, which is revealed when he expects Jennie to behave just as his late wife, Barbara.

Baker brings grace and cheer to Jennie Malone’s character. While she is orderly, precise and often critical, Baker breathes new life into her with a voice and mannerisms that are proper and refined yet also warm and friendly. Baker shines particularly brightly during the second half of the play, when the golden hue of George and Jennie’s honeymoon period has faded and given way to conflict. She delivers a powerful monologue about love and endurance with such conviction that the entire audience, which had laughed and clapped throughout the play, was in stunned silence by the emotional power of her speech.

One scene-stealing actor is Ben Huber, whose eye-catching body language and boisterous dialogue cast the spotlight on his actions. Huber blesses Leo with a smooth strut, loud singing voice and a surprisingly complex array of emotions delivered through a monologue about George’s heartbreak in the second act.

“Chapter Two” is heartwarming, beautifully staged, and hilarious. The Arizona Theatre Company may have skipped chapter one, but their 2017-2018 season has hit the ground running.

Neil Simon’s romantic comedy “Chapter Two” unfolds in the Herberger Theater Center from Oct. 5 to Oct. 22.

Correction: October 15, 2017

An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the presenter of this production as “Arizona Theater Troupe.” The story has been updated with the correct spelling, “Arizona Theatre Company.”

The earlier version also implied that the Herberger Theater Center was a presenter or producer of this production. It is in fact a venue for a number of resident companies. “Chapter Two” was the first show of the season for Arizona Theatre Company.

Contact the columnist at sosulli2@asu.edu

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