For decades, I’ve bemoaned the newer theatrical practice of miking actors in non-musical roles. Why, I have whined, aren’t we still expecting actors to project?
The four players in the Arizona Theatre Company production of Chapter Two are not wired for sound. But boy, are they projecting. I can’t imagine there’s anything questionable about the acoustics in the Herberger Theater Center’s mainstage, so why, on opening night, were all but one of these fine actors bellowing as if they were on fire? While I usually wind up wondering how I allowed myself to be talked into seeing another Neil Simon play, my question this time was: How come everyone’s screaming?
Despite all the hollering, let me recommend that you go see this Chapter Two. You likely won’t have another chance to watch a play directed by the woman who inspired it, one written by her ex-husband. This is Simon’s turning-point play, the place where he reportedly discovered he could mine his personal life for comedy. Actress Marsha Mason, to whom Simon was married when he wrote Chapter Two — a play about a recent widower who marries a long-suffering divorcee — endured Simon’s lingering grief over the death of his first wife.
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Here, she’s at the helm of her own story, which she has updated to some ill-defined recent time. The characters carry cellphones but also have land lines and answering machines; the pre-show music is vaguely contemporary; characters drink bottled water and make references to HDTV. The lead character, a novelist, writes not on a typewriter but a suspiciously older-looking laptop; his ’60s mod furniture could be 20 years old or 21st-century trendy.
Regardless of what era he’s suffering in, you’ll very much enjoy, I think, David Mason’s performance as George Schneider. Mason (no relation to Marsha) is a charmer who offers a menu of emotions, each more sincere than the last. He’s an unabashed bumbler when meeting Jennie Malone (Blair Baker) over the phone, sweetly assertive when they hook up in person, and expertly comic in those unsubtle moments that hang like moss in every Simon dramatic comedy. The scene where George confesses his resentment of his new wife and the lingering pain of his late wife’s absence is breathtaking — both cake and icing.
The trio of others, all making their ATC debuts, also at turns spin coyness and flirtation into something else, but it is always a very loud something else that had me longing for a little more of what David Mason was bringing. Also a bottle of aspirin.
Chapter Two continues through October 28 at the Herberger Theatre Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Call 602-256-6995 or visit Arizona Theatre Company's website.