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STAGE | THEATER REVIEW

Chapter 11

Secondary roles are well played, but Neil Simon's 'Chapter Two' at Group Repertory doesn't pay off.

March 20, 1997|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With playwright Neil Simon's capability of launching emotional depth charges, especially with his Brighton Beach trilogy, it's easy to forget the pre-trilogy lull he was long stuck in. Nothing typifies that lull more clearly than his late-'70s comedy-drama "Chapter Two," which attempts depth but never gets out of the shallow end.

Director Dom Salinaro's revival at Group Repertory Theatre feels de-energized from the start, and gives us scant reason to follow Simon's protagonist, George Schneider (Robert Gallo). Schneider is also Simon's alter-ego, but instead of light boulevard comedies for Broadway, George bangs out mysteries, though he lacks the nerve to put his real name to them.

George is still grieving the loss of his beloved late wife, and may or may not get out of his rut and start dating. Enter actress and divorcee Jennie (Jennifer Toffel), who hooks up with George care of his brother Leo (Kerry Logan).

This should be charming stuff, but it isn't: George and Jennie's early mating by phone is by far Simon's best writing in the play, though you could hardly tell by the klunky pace at which it's played here. The problems start with Gallo, who is neither convincing as a man grieving nor as a man angry with Jennie for being so damned understanding when he can't get over his wife. And Toffel's patrician bearing as a performer makes Jennie seem icy to the touch.

These actors don't fit their roles, so they can't generate any animal magnetism. (Their characters marry two weeks after they meet, but we can't see why or how.) In fact, all of the heat is generated by vivacious Shandi Sinnamon as Jennie's hormonally itchy girlfriend, Fay, and by Logan as Leo. Both the secondary actors thoroughly dominate every scene they're in, clearly not what the playwright intended. When the shallow characters cheating on their spouses are more fun than the serious, monogamous folk we're meant to bond with, something's seriously off-kilter.

Salinaro also has an alternate cast on alternating weeks: Christopher Winfield (George); John Bower (Leo); and Kathleen Taylor (Fay), with Toffel remaining as Jennie.

BE THERE

"Chapter Two" at Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood, 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 3 p.m. Sun. Runs indefinitely; $15. (818) 769-7529.

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