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Let’s Review: North Coast Rep’s ‘Chapter Two’ takes playful poke at second time arounds

David Ellenstein and Jacquelyn Ritz star in Neil Simon’s ‘Chapter Two’ at North Coast Repertory Theatre.
David Ellenstein and Jacquelyn Ritz star in Neil Simon’s ‘Chapter Two’ at North Coast Repertory Theatre.
( / Courtesy)

North Coast Rep opened a four-week run of “Chapter Two,” Saturday night, the play that launched the Solana Beach theater company back in 1982. There’s something ironic and fitting about the company going back to its roots with this aptly-named production 33 years later.

The Neil Simon classic debuted on Broadway in 1977 and was nominated for four Tony awards, including Best Play. Two years later, the playwright’s semi-autobiographical story was turned into a movie starring James Caan and Marsha Mason — who, as Simon’s second wife, was actually the inspiration for the female lead and who was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for her performance.

According to North Coast Rep Artistic Director David Ellenstein, who stars in and co-directed “Chapter Two” with Christopher Williams, “There has been a ‘rediscovery,’ as it were, of the comedic skills, dramatic situation and great dialogue that propelled Neil Simon to become perhaps the most produced playwright of the 20th century. There seems to be a full-out comeback for Mr. Simon’s canon of work.”

Maybe it’s a longing for a simpler, pre-Internet time when people actually spoke to each other and their sentences contained more than 140 characters. Both the story and the time period hold a cherished place in the hearts of a generation, and this new production brings its audience right back to 1979, evoking a sense of nostalgia that baby boomers in particular will appreciate.

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In the four-character play, George Schneider (Ellenstein) is a recently-widowed New York City writer whose press agent brother, Leo (Louis Lotorto), is determined to get him back out into the world — and into the dating market.

On the other side of town, actress Jennie Malone (Jacquelyn Ritz) has just gotten divorced, and her best friend, Faye (Mhari Sandoval), is trying to get her to move on and find someone new.

Although neither George nor Jennie have any interest in meeting each other, they accidentally end up talking on the phone — and, after a choppy start, that’s when the story really comes alive. It sinks its teeth into the audience and keeps them hooked through the ups and downs of the pair’s whirlwind romance, fast marriage and subsequent problems.

There’s no question that the play itself feels dated. George writes on a typewriter and talks about spending $50 an hour for therapy and having a Fresca in the TWA lounge. Jennie’s Pucci print dress would now be considered vintage, and Simon’s one-liners have an old fashioned Borscht Belt charm.

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In fact, on opening night, the biggest laugh came when Lotorto tripped over the cord of George’s desk phone and, on his way out the door, turned around and ad-libbed, “Hey, and buy a new cordless phone, OK?”

It was like he had addressed the elephant in the room, and everyone could now just sit back and enjoy.

The four actors — all of whom NCRT regulars will recognize — are excellent. Ellenstein and Ritz have a natural rapport best showcased during the couple’s initial phone conversations, which are warm and funny and set the foundation for their future together.

Those scenes work especially well thanks to a fantastic set design by Marty Burnett, which splits the stage into his and her Manhattan apartments. The ‘70s are powerfully brought back to life through the dead-on details provided by lighting designer Matt Novotny, costume designer Alina Bokovikova, sound designer Chris Luessmann, properties designer/set dresser Benjamin Cole, hair and wig designer Peter Herman and scenic artist John Finkbiner.

Dealing with love, grief and second chances, Simon’s story is timeless and universal. Despite technological advances and sites like match.com, dating hasn’t changed much in all these years and audiences will relate when George and Jennie agree, “No matter how old you get, this never gets easier.”

They’ll also empathize with George’s inability to stop mourning the loss of his wife and will understand when he says, “Let’s take it one night at a time.”

“Chapter Two” is certainly enjoyable and will most likely appeal to an older audience. If you’re looking for a modern touch, though, well, that only comes before the show starts, when everyone is asked to turn off their cell phones. You can bet that never happened during the original production.