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Theater: Life is a journey of beginnings in Neil Simon’s ‘Chapter Two’ at North Coast Repertory Theatre

Artistic Director David Ellenstein takes the stage stage for revival of NCRT’s first production

Artistic Director David Ellenstein takes the stage stage for revival of NCRT’s first production

David Ellenstein (as George Schneider) and Jackie Ritz (as Jennie Malone) rehearse for ‘Chapter Two,’ at the North Coast Repertory Theatre.
David Ellenstein (as George Schneider) and Jackie Ritz (as Jennie Malone) rehearse for ‘Chapter Two,’ at the North Coast Repertory Theatre.
Aaron Rumley

The first play ever staged at North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT) has a long history of success. “Chapter Two,” by American playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon, returns to the stage with NCRT’s artistic director David Ellenstein and Christopher Williams co-directing. Ellenstein also portrays the lead character, recently widowed writer George Schneider.

“It was No. 1 even back then in 1982,” said Ellenstein, who was not at NCRT at that time. “It opened on Broadway in 1978. I always liked it and when I looked at it again, recently, I liked it even more. My only experience with Neil Simon was a role I had in ‘Broadway Bound,’ during the first regional production, and then I did it again in San Diego at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company.”

“Chapter Two,” like many of Simon’s plays, is based on events in his own life. It’s a comedy about a recent widower (George), who connects with his neighbor, Jennie, who is recently divorced. It was written as a tribute to actress Marsha Mason, Simon’s second wife, and her tolerance with his long-lasting grief over the death of his first wife.

When NCRT’s Andrew Barnicle suggested Ellenstein play George, Ellenstein said he couldn’t do it because he had to direct.

“But my staff wanted me to do it, and this will be the fourth time I’ll be getting on stage as an actor at the North Coast Rep. I like to do that once in a while,” Ellenstein said. “I checked to see if Chris Williams was available because he keeps a really good eye on me and gives me the right feedback. (Since he was), I decided to do it.”

Ellenstein said the other three actors in the show — Jackie Ritz, Louis Lotorto and Mahri Sandoval — have been standouts in their performances, so he chose them, too.

Directing and starring in the same play is challenging, Ellenstein admitted. “While acting, I can’t help but get distracted by the design, costumes or what the other actors are doing,” he said. “But we all talked things out at the first meeting, and it has only been a problem for me to focus on being an actor, when I’m an actor.”

Simon loads his plays with emotion, and “Chapter Two,” is no different. It’s funny, whimsical, lovely, touching, romantic, snappy, moving etc., so how does a director draw all that out of his actors?

“You have to start with the reality of the situation,” Ellenstein said. “Since this is autobiographical about courtship and marriage, there’s a reality to it; we have to find out what’s really going on with these people. The lines are very funny, so we don’t have to worry so much about making them funny, just delivering them honestly in the situation. My character, George, is depressed and in mourning and to work through that he meets a woman who is going to be an important part of his life. Yet he struggles with it being OK to move on. That’s why it’s called ‘Chapter Two.’ ”

He added that the show has multi-generational appeal. “It’s about people falling in love, loss — the jokes still make sense. It’s a good play that will entertain everyone.” u

IF YOU GO: “Chapter Two” runs Feb. 25-March 22 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach. Tickets from $37 at (858) 481-1055 or northcoastrep.org